Comparison of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You and Thomas DeZengotita's Mediated

Comparison of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You and Thomas DeZengotita's Mediated

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Both Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You and Thomas DeZengotita's Mediated deal with the idea of increased density of available choices in today's culture. For every product and activity, there are countless decisions to be made. From food to clothing to office supplies, there are so many options to sift through. Theory and analysis of this increasing complexity for consumers of products and the media are explored by both authors.
The thesis of Everything Bad is Good for You is this: people who deride popular culture do so because so much of pop culture's subject matter is banal or offensive. But the beneficial elements of video games and TV arise not from their subject matter, but from their format, which require that players and viewers winkle out complex storylines and puzzles, getting a "cognitive workout" that teaches the same kind of skills that math problems and chess games impart. As Johnson points out, no one evaluates the benefit of chess based on its storyline or monotonically militaristic subject matter.
Mediated is difficult to describe. Imagine that you are the sun, and every flower on Earth points toward you, every leaf on every tree angles toward you. This is somewhat similar to the situation we, as 21st-century Americans, face every day. Each of us is at the center of our own solar system, surrounded every day by hundreds of flattering appeals for our attention, be it television, radio, books, magazines, billboards, etc. What effect does this have? How do we, who are practically the stars of our own reality shows, compare to our grandparents, whose media intake was but a trickle? How do kids growing up today find their way through the constant barrage of information, advertising, and entertainment? Is there anything left in the world that's still real, or is "real" the best we can hope for? DeZengotita neither celebrates nor condemns our situation, but he does a great job of describing it.
DeZengotita's second chapter of Mediated is based on the idea that children spend more time in the adolescent phase of life due to the options they are faced with. The learning curve is the same as it used to be, but kids are faced with so much more to learn now that it takes them longer to deal with becoming an informed adult. They have to choose who they want to be as an adult, and there are just too many options for them to sort out in the amount of time their parents went through the process.

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Johnson's answer to DeZengotita's theory on options is his view on increasing media complexity. One of his main points is that television shows and movies have become more complex as the rise of the internet is connecting people like never before while conditioning their minds to a whole new way of communicating. The fact that children growing up today can not only program the VCR better than their parents, but also create a web page, hold multiple instant message conversations and send emails to any number of people without breaking a sweat, is proof of the increase in the average person's ability to follow a large number of simultaneous tasks/storylines/stimuli.
The best example of the connection between Johnson's media complexity comes from Ellen Degeneres' Here and Now comedy routine. She describes her TV watching experience in the new age of interactive programs. Frustration abounds as she tries to watch a news program, answer a poll question from the show online, read the headline ticker at the bottom of the screen and check the weather on the side of the screen, all at the same time. This task, difficult for someone who has not grown up with this kind of news presentation, is simple for a teenager today.
According to Johnson, the average IQ has raised a significant amount from generation to generation because of the change in media diet. The fact that children growing up today have so much exposure to today's fast-paced media and entertainment means that they can process tasks and questions (the type that are tested on IQ tests) better than their parents. The Raven test, as Johnson describes it, is simple for most kids these days because of their prior exposure to similar visual puzzles and image based questions. However, it is important that Johnson acknowledges that IQ tests are not the basis for all human intelligence. Being well-educated is not the same as being smart.
One of the best points Johnson makes, is that media (television shows, movies, and video games) are being consumed by society not despite their complexity, but because of their complexity. People today have a hunger for something that is going to stretch their imaginations, challenge their beliefs, and make them think. Media consumers have a thirst for intricate storylines and plot twists. This desire is a sign of a higher level of thought and cognitive processing, a.k.a. Johnson's Sleeper Curve.
Admittedly, there may be validity to Johnson's arguments. It is entirely possible that media consumers today are getting smarter, but you also have to acknowledge DeZengotita's theories on a mediated society. Are people getting smarter, or are they just learning what is expected of them and delivering what society wants to see? How much of Johnson's new media diet is too much? What happens when all the options and all of the stimuli just go too far?
For example, a Target advertising insert in the Sunday New York Times pitched their stores' new pharmacy services on the basis that their pill bottles and their pharmacists are more stylish than you ordinarily expect at the drug store: In the ad there was a hip-looking young Asian woman with stylish eyeglass frames, and sleek pill bottles in fun, bright colors instead of the drab old institutional orange. So apparently no corner of our economy is immune to lifestyle-oriented advertising. You are expected to make the contents of your medicine cabinet look cooler and more impressive, presumably for those inevitable snoops who peek in there when visiting. And you should regard medicine not as a necessary product, one that should be available to all citizens in our society, but as a distinctive, positional product that demonstrates your knack for designy accoutrements. Adding a style component to a basic necessity like this adds justification to arguments that would deny it to a significant portion of society who can't afford it. It starts to seem optional rather than a baseline essential that should be provided for everyone. And it suggests that no matter how mandatory the consumption is for the consumer, our economy will try to trick that consumption out into a choice laden with options. Meaningless options such as the choice of what color bottle your antibiotics will come in masquerade as power in our cultural, and encourage us to forget what constitutes real power.
To me, the most interesting question about the whole issue is whether the kind of learning that Johnson focuses on in the book outweighs the potentially negative aspects of what is generally thought of as our dumbed down and getting dumber some ways, it's a question of the importance of how we learn versus what we learn. Unfortunately, that question lies largely outside the scope of the book and is probably an entire book of its own
The world may never know what the true effects of the media and all the options in everyday life, but both Johnson and DeZengotita have presented strong arguments for their theories. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, between Johnson's praise and DeZengotita's almost disturbing description of a mediated society. Whether people are becoming smarter or becoming puppets because of today's media, it is undeniable that the media has an effect on people. We can only hope that the changes and influence will improve culture instead of destroy it.
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