Everything Bad Is Good For You

Via BoingBoing.net, Everything Bad Is Good For You.

Unlike my first three books, which were all to varying degrees intellectual travelogues with me as a kind of tour guide (“let me travel with you through the world of emergence, or neuroscience, and show you the interesting landmarks”), Everything Bad is a pure work of persuasion, an old-fashioned polemic. It’s shorter than the others, and barely has any chapters, and I’m not really introducing the reader to outside experts as the last two have. It’s just me trying to marshal all the evidence I can to persuade the reader of a single long-term trend: that popular culture on average has been steadily growing more complex and cognitively challenging over the past thirty years. The dumbing-down, instant gratification society assumption has it completely wrong. Popular entertainment is making us smarter and more engaged, not catering to our base instincts.

I call this long-term trend the Sleeper Effect, after that famous Woody Allen joke from his mock sci-fi film where a team of scientists from 2029 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge. (In conversation, I sometimes describe this book as the Atkins diet for pop culture.) Over the course of the book, I look at everything from Grand Theft Auto to “24,” from Finding Nemo to “Dallas,” from “Hill Street Blues” to “The Sopranos,” from “Oprah” to “The Apprentice.” There’s some material about the internet, too, though less than you might suspect. (And I’m pretty sure the word “blog” never appears — imagine that!) The critical method I’ve concocted for making the argument is one of my favorite things about the book — it draws a little on narratology, a little on brain science, a little economics and media criticism, a dash of social network theory. But it tries to yoke all those disciplines together in a consistent and unified way. Or at least I think it does.

I totally need to read this.

Chat Fragment

00:00:00 (michael): Is there any way to go to sleep until next Wednesday?
00:00:17 (me): That’s when hell begins, my friend.
00:00:38 (michael): ‘fraid you’re right. But at least it’s a start. :-)
00:04:31 (me): that stuff about what the Right is going to do to Kerry poisons even my hope of his victory.
00:05:02 (michael): Yeah. It’s grim. Really, really grim.
00:05:22 (me): we’re not out of the woods yet.
00:05:40 (me): and winning a victory in an election will not get us out of the woods.
00:06:17 (michael): True dat. We’ve got a long way to go.
00:07:31 (me): you know, a while ago I had this insight that I didn’t know what to do with so I let go of it, and that was that the structure of elections — big fights, winner take all — was essentially opposed to what liberalism is really all about. Despite democracy being essentially liberal, elections are not, at least in anything like their current form.
00:07:48 (me): I think that the grim future we’re foreseeing is an illustration of that fact.
00:08:59 (michael): Yeah… not the way we’re doing things.
00:10:39 (me): on the other hand, I think important things are taking place in parallel to the election.

You don’t ever really win by making people do things the way you want. You only really win by getting other people on your side, coming together in dialogue, honestly working together. I think Kerry is going to win. But the reason that is not going to make everything all better is that the fight is still going on, and when there is a fight going on, then the people who approve of fighting are winning, and the people who love peace are losing. Even if the people they support are “winning” the fight.

Essentially peaceful, decent people are always going to be worse fighters. They’ll only ever “win” when winning is understood in a broader context than “kicking the other guy’s butt.”

We’ll only really have a decent nation when a jerk like Bush not only loses an election, but would never have a chance of winning it in the first place. We are not there yet. We have a long way to go.