Wander down the abandoned alleys of Trotskyism and there is no telling where you might turn up: on Main Street with contemporary neoconservatives, on campuses with respected literary critics or on the margins of the margins, where political savants probe the zeitgeist. In one of those quarters lived Josef Weber, a forgotten essayist who pondered, among other things, popular culture, which did not please him. To establish its impact, Weber in a 1957 essay posited a law of the dwindling force of cognition in bourgeois society.
Weber’s law suggested that despite vast growth in scientific and technological information, knowledge of society declines. People increasingly know about things and decreasingly about social reality. Later reformulated as the law of the falling rate of intelligence, it posits that intelligence sinks in society as the production, selling and advertising of commodities rises. We face a crisis of the overproduction of idiocy. These notions represent a classic stance about the dumbing-down of popular culture. Cases in point: The most popular sporting event in the United States is the Indianapolis 500, in which nearly half a million people pay good money to watch grown men drive fast automobiles in a circle. Viewers by the millions follow contestants on reality television as they compete to eat bugs and worms.
Steven Johnson, a savvy writer on technology and its pleasures, offers a thoroughgoing challenge to this bleak outlook on popular culture. To be sure, Johnson’s contrariness may be a pose, inasmuch as it depends on opposition that has all but melted away. Apart from a few depressed followers of Josef Weber and his ilk, who today believes in falling cognition? Champions of popular culture can be found throughout this broad land. One need not venture very far to discover courses on soap operas, situation comedies or Star Trek offered by cultural studies professors, who wax about the profundity of television. To be sure, doubt about the legitimacy of their subject matter haunts even the most avid boosters of popular culture. I sometimes ask my students a variant of an Internet dating question: Whom would you rather date, someone who indicates their favorite pastime is to stay home to play video games or to step out to a ballet or museum? Even the most avid enthusiasts of television balk at dating their soul mates.
In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Johnson tells a “progressive story,” in which popular culture, far from dumbing us down, becomes ever more complex, intellectually stimulating and sophisticated each year. He recalls that his father partook of an intricate game of simulated professional baseball in which one mastered endless data in order to field teams. While this game required dice, cards and graphs, Johnson Jr. grew up on video games, which serve as the touchstone for his argument. For Johnson these games and kindred television programs require an ability to command mountains of information and characters. They are not easy to play or enjoy; they call for patience and intelligence. Aficionados study guidebooks and cheat sheets. The most debased forms of mass diversion–video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms–turn out to be nutritional after all. Neither the masses nor the mass media are getting dumber. “The exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.”
Johnson worships the god of complexity, but it may prove a false idol. He makes much of the new complexity, not simply of video games–the transition from a simplistic Pac-Man to an intricate Grand Theft Auto–but of television programs and films. Old shows like Dragnet consisted of a single narrative structure with two or three lead characters and ended decisively. New shows like The Sopranos juggle numerous characters and maintain an ongoing story. Johnson even offers a spatial graph of the Fox series 24 to demonstrate that it’s at least three times as complex as the old Dallas. These shows presumably demand increasing attention from the viewer, who must recall previous episodes and follow multiple story lines. Although the trend is not so evident, films too have become increasingly complicated. Johnson compares Star Wars, with ten characters, to Lord of the Rings, with almost thirty. He suggests that new children’s films such as Toy Story and Shrek present much more intricate paths than earlier ones like Mary Poppins and Bambi.