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.
Johnson’s argument is not quite as contrived as it appears. He limits his thesis to narrow cognitive and mental skills that may increase due to gaming, television and Internet surfing. He makes a halfhearted stab at giving a scientific confirmation of his belief that popular culture and its customers are becoming smarter, but he often writes in the comfortably vague style of “studies have shown.” He appeals to evidence of rising IQs over the decades, based on the work of an American philosopher named James Flynn, which supposedly rebuts any notion of dwindling cognition in society.
Yet the idea that IQ scores are rising remains contested; and even if it were true, it is not clear what its causes are or–more important–what its consequences are. Hence when Johnson tells us that “moderately intelligent people today are much smarter” than “moderately intelligent people were a hundred years ago,” we moderately intelligent might wonder what this means. True, many of us today can simultaneously drive a car, talk on a cell phone, shuffle music CDs and sip coffee, which a denizen of a century ago would find bewildering. But is this a measure of intelligence? Does it have any bearing on knowledge of self and society? Not in the least.
This is the rub about the complexity argument: how complex is complexity? Or, more precisely, does an ability to master complex narratives and intricate games reflect an expansion of general intelligence? It’s odd that Johnson’s paean to the impact of mass media nowhere mentions “attention-deficit disorder,” which has only been recognized as a syndrome by the American Psychiatric Association since 1980. Whatever its medical basis, the syndrome would seem a revealing counterpoint to media complexity: Many people today cannot focus on one thing for long. “Complex” television programs with ten characters and six plots may respond to this phenomenon; something is always happening, unlike a simple narrative, which might require a willingness or ability to stick to one story. Johnson half knows this, and late in his book he qualifies his thesis: The new complex intelligence does not foster a capacity to follow the “sustained” argument of a typical book. Johnson must make this concession–after all, he offers us an argumentative book, not a blog or a video game.
However, the concession hardly salvages his thesis. Today’s media may require skills that stand in no relationship to an aptitude to think about the world. It’s hardly news that many Americans command vast amounts of information about automobiles and sports, and just a few hazy facts about society. My own basketball pals can talk with ardor and knowledge about an army of ball players, coaches, high school prospects, old games and new, salaries and draft choices, but few of them address politics with any comparable expertise. Media complexity may express the dwindling force of cognition in the era of attention-deficit disorder.
If Johnson trumpets the new media, Thomas de Zengotita questions it. De Zengotita believes that the media have “mediated” life to the point that we no longer know, or care about, the difference between reality and its representation. “We have been consigned to a new plane of being engendered by mediating representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity.” If this sounds portentous, de Zengotita generally is not: “Ask yourself this: is there anything you do that remains essentially unmediated, anything you don’t experience reflexively through some commodified representation of it? Birth? Marriage? Illness?” For de Zengotita we live in a period where reality and representation, or things and their sheen, blur. Everything seems to flow and merge, a world of endless choices, crystallized in the expression “whatever.” We watch fake reality TV and live real fake lives.
De Zengotita, who teaches at a progressive private school in New York City, has a good eye for life’s foibles in an age of surfeit. At a school event in which political clubs made presentations, seventy-five adults showed but only a few students. An indignant woman arose, a 1960s veteran, to lambaste the lack of “opportunities” at a “school like this” for “our students to bring their concerns to the community.” Wrong, as de Zengotita realized. There were not too few but too many opportunities.
We have entered the period of “niche commitments” and politics, he writes. “It was that evening that I first grasped the dialectic of ‘whatever.'” At another panel, a speaker let drop that he had attended an “Advocacy Institute.” De Zengotita wondered, “Advocacy of what?” The speaker replied, “Anything.”
De Zengotita breezes through subjects such as television, movies, adolescence and parenting, and he sometimes sounds like Johnson with a caveat. The transition from Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best to The Simpsons, he writes breathlessly, says “so much” about the “new millennium.” In The Simpsons, anarchy reigns. We are no longer “charmed” by children as they “slowly learn to make sense of a world that does, in fact, make sense. Because it doesn’t. The world of The Simpsons is chaos.”
Unfortunately, de Zengotita has an eye for media excess and excess media, but not much more. Mediated consists of loosely connected vignettes and observations punctuated by epiphanies de Zengotita experienced during panels or watching television. To the extent he has an argument, his best chapter, on “The Cult of the Child,” bears little relationship to it, which de Zengotita coolly admits. The sanctification of children seems “to sit strangely” amid a society of mediation, where everything is about choices and representation. “But mediation is nothing if not a fount of paradox. No need to make the factual case” about the cult of the child. With this approach one could also take up Bush’s foreign policy or the health insurance crisis as instances of media mediation, which de Zengotita almost does. He rants about Bush but does not get beyond telling us that the President belongs to the “age of mediation” while pretending he doesn’t.
De Zengotita’s best and worst case for his argument may be his own book. It’s not clear whether Mediated is a real book or a knockoff; whether it is written in English or a facsimile. It reads like a magazine piece on uppers, and parts of it did appear in Harper’s Magazine. “Ah those iPods,” runs a typical passage. “Plato would have flipped out. Which bring us to attitude.” So it goes for several hundred pages. “But enough politics. Let’s have fun instead. Here’s one of my favorite examples…. I’ll never forget–it was during the Christmas season of 1999, during those heady dot-com days, and Jeff Bezos was sharing his vision with the masses in a TV interview…. Bezos saith….” Or this: “I hate to be a drag, but, have you noticed? Movie endings are getting lamer and lamer lately, especially in the action/sci-fi/scary area.” Ironically it’s Johnson, the champion of the mass media, who has written an old-fashioned book; the putative detractor, de Zengotita, offers us the literary equivalent of Post-its.
The critic Dwight Macdonald befriended the German refugee Josef Weber, perhaps because of a shared suspicion of the culture industry. “Those who consume Masscult,” Macdonald wrote more than forty years ago, “might as well be eating ice cream sodas, while those who fabricate it are no more expressing themselves than are the stylists, who design the latest atrocity from Detroit.” The day for sweeping denunciations of popular culture like these is obviously over, probably for the better. The vision of media complexity and profundity, however, that pervades Johnson’s and de Zengotita’s books may represent not simply an advance–a new sophistication–but an old conformism.