Everything Bad Is Good for You

Steven Johnson argues that pop culture isn’t just good for us, it’s a cognitive workout for the brain.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


This slim manifesto addresses that whisper of guilt that arises whenever you feel like you should pick up a book but end up watching Desperate Housewives. Inspired by Sleeper, in which Woody Allen awakes in 2173 and discovers that hot fudge is now considered a health food, Steven Johnson argues that pop culture isn’t just good for us, it’s a cognitive workout for the brain. Movies, video games, and television, he says, are getting more sophisticated, and, in turn, are making us more intelligent.

In this formulation, the video game Grand Theft Auto does not represent the latest insult to Western civilization, but rather a chance to engage in “telescopic” thinking and to pleasure the “seeking” functions of our minds. This may sound like counterintuitive hocus-pocus, but Johnson is a careful thinker, and he cleverly uses neuroscience to buttress his analysis. Apparently, it’s halfway accurate to say that you’re addicted to The Sopranos.

Whether or not Everything Bad is correct, it is a brilliant speculation, the first volley in a spirited argument that the decline of reading may not mean the end of intellect. While Johnson is not an apologist for pop culture’s excesses, he’s a necessary counterbalance to those who are blind to its charms, and, perhaps, its virtues.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate