Bad things, good things

On the ride home tonight I was listening to The Connection and the guest was Steven Johnson, talking about his new book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. I read an article somewhere last week adapted from the book, and while I won’t get into all the details the gist of it is that today’s new media landscape is far more rich, varied, and complex than at any time in our history, and, as a result, we are becoming a smarter society. Shows like The West Wing and ER are fast-paced, highly specialized, and carry dozens of plotlines simultaneously, yet people have no problem keeping up. Video games offer rich virtual worlds that require complex problem solving and observation and include entire interactive stories. IQ scores are up and crime is down over the past ten years, and Johnson says new media is an important factor in this change.

The thing Johnson said that most jumped out at me was when he was talking about shows like ER that throw out massive gobs of jargon at a frantic pace. What is amazing, when you think about it, is that you can watch a show where you’re not understanding 3/4 of what they’re talking about, and yet 20 minutes later they can refer indirectly to something said earlier and we have gotten really good at picking up on it and understanding what is going on, without the need for big flashing arrows and plot summaries to keep us in the know.

When I was going through high school the big concern of parents and educators was equipping students with the tools they need to function in a new information society. Everyone was lamenting the downfall of the library and talking about how important it is that schools teach students how to use the internet correctly. It was drilled into our heads that what we find on web pages cannot be trusted and we must be careful. But we were not directly taught how to deal with the sheer amount of information out there — how to filter it, process it, pick out what is important and relevent, and apply it to our lives.

Where education failed, television has succeeded, and brilliantly. Not only have we gotten extremely good at picking out the important details, remembering things for long periods of time, and making logical connections as we go, in the process we also pick up new knowledge and begin to understand the other things that fly by. We’re learning new facts at the same time that we’re learning how to be better thinkers. And we’re getting better at discerning what is truth and what is not.

The second thing Johnson touched on was the purposefulness of this change. An older listener called to complain that, not only is television “garbage,” (clearly he is not watching the same shows I am watching), it is also an accident when producers get it right. Hollywood doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they’re just responding to normal cultural change without really contributing anything new.

Not so, says Johnson (and me). With the advent of series on DVD (and earlier, syndication), television producers have for the first time been given strong incentive to make their shows interesting and watchable multiple times. Why will you watch a Simpsons episode you have already seen when it appears as a rerun? Because you are going to pick up new jokes the second time around!

Another thing I’ll add that Johnson only indirectly touched on is that as shows get more complicated and viewers demand more, it is important to create a show that is internally consistant, intelligent, and interesting. There are countless fan sites dedicated to discussing the intricacies of show plot lines and character development. This loyal fan base is essential to keeping the show profitable. And now that people can watch an entire season in a month or less by buying the DVDs, it is even more important to make, not just an internally consistant hour, but an internally consistant 22 hours, and an internally consistent entire run of the series. If you don’t, they’ll notice, and no one will buy your DVDs. Similarly, the rabid online fans, the opinion shapers, will jump on you if you start to go astray, as happened, very publically, on Television Without Pity a few years back with West Wing series creator Aaron Sorkin, who took the site so seriously that he read the message boards and posted responses under a pseudonym. He found the whole experience in the end so upsetting that he incorporated a similar plot line into an episode to “get back” at the people on TWoP.

But the people on TWoP were right, and the show was getting worse. Sometimes the fans are wrong, sometimes the fans are overly demanding and overzealous, but many other times the fans are right on, and it behooves television producers to keep an ear tuned in their direction. After all, the viewing audience is a lot smarter these days. 🙂