Wednesday, August 03, 2005

But everything good is better

Critics of popular culture are not a homogeneous bunch. They have various complaints: that it is filled with sex and violence; that it is partly responsible for the decline in reading (at least, the reading of books); and that it has become increasingly simplistic, narcotic and dull.

The key to Steven Johnson's panegyric to pop culture, Everything Bad is Good for You, is that he is only concerned with the last of these: with what he calls the "Brave New World critics". One could be misled by his euphoric rhetoric to expect unqualified praise of Unreal Tournament and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? But the argument is really quite narrow: that television and video games are now more structurally complicated than they were in 1975, and that this has had a positive effect on our IQ. The proper reaction to the book is not, "How does he get from that limited evidence to such sweeping conclusions about the benefits of pop culture?" but "How many of the critics will bother to deny his claims?"

This is not to say that the book is boring or banal. It contains some nice analysis – for instance, of current reality television as the adaptation of the game show to an era of puzzle-solving video games, and of syndication as a pressure towards the kind of narrative and emotional depth that rewards repeated viewing. But the central thread, a diachronic study of computer games and television series – comparing Pac-Man with Sim City, Dallas with 24, Wheel of Fortune with Survivor – is far less surprising than the book's impressive publicity might suggest. Who would doubt that you need to perform more complex tasks to survive Sim City, and track more characters and plots to follow 24?

The only favourable comparison of pop cultural forms with books is directed at "cognitive benefits" like "attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads", and the alleged intelligence that is tracked by IQ tests. Johnson barely raises the question how much value any of these "benefits" have. He assumes that IQ measures transferable skills: "problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, spatial logic". But when pressed to defend this, or its significance, his logic is curiously circular: the development of these skills is useful in "managing more complex forms of technology, mastering increasingly nuanced narrative structures – even playing more complicated video games." So: the virtue of pop culture is to make possible more intricate pop-cultural forms.

Despite being an apologist for television and video games, Johnson's utilitarian approach in fact suggests that he doesn't think much of them. He doesn't hesitate to announce, at the beginning of his book, that the phenomena he investigates "are not, for the most part, Great Works of Art":
The conventional wisdom the [evidence] undermines is not the premise that mass culture pales in comparison with High Art in its aesthetic and cultural riches.
And he is happy to patronize the people who analyze The Apprentice on fan sites for their bad spelling and imperfect grammar, even as they are meant to indicate the interactive vivacity of reality TV. (I was amused to note that, immediately after his disparaging remarks, he manages to spell "Hazzard", as in "The Dukes of", with only one "z".)

Perhaps this is why his argument takes the tack it does: having no faith in the content of popular culture, he looks to the form, to the cognitive demands of sheer engagement. When he argues that exposure to pop culture inflates IQ, he is no more concerned with Myst than he is with programming the VCR.

The consequence is that he avoids what is, I think, the more interesting question, about the emergence of the video game from an era in which its value (if any) is purely instrumental, to the level of art. This has already happened in television – for instance, with Dennis Potter, conspicuously absent from Johnson's US-centric view. It is happening in the medium of the comic book – with Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, among others. But these forms are at least similar to ones already in place. The work of video-game art will be something new, with its own rules and standards. In understanding it, we must resist the temptation simply to apply the expectations with which we approach the other media. Since this is true, and since so little effort has been made in that direction, it is possible that "Great Works of Video-Game Art" already exist.


Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

A related link.

9:18 AM  

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