I’ve been deluged by emails over the past few weeks about Steven Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad is Good For You. People want to know how I feel about this new treatment ideas similar to those I posed in Playing the Future: How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos, back in 1995. Am I pissed off? Proud? Jealous?
Steven has been a friend and colleague for the past ten years. We’ve agreed about a lot more than we’ve disagreed, and just as I’ve learned from reading texts of his, ranging from Interface Culture to Emergence, I trust he’s been influenced by mine.
Everything Bad and Playing the Future are based on the same premise – that kids’ and popular culture are much richer than most people give them credit for. They are more dense, multi-threaded, and require greater cognitive processing power of a certain kind than most media of the past. (As I put just one aspect of this shift in my own book, a shortened attention span may be compensated for by a broadened attention range.)
Playing the Future goes off in a different direction after that, looking at the values and assumptions implicit in these new structures. What does it mean when media strives for complexity over linearity? What are the underlying assumptions in fiction that takes its structure from that of a fractal? What is the difference between playing pinball games and video games, snowboarding and surfing, or reading cyberpunk vs. traditional science fiction? Is the transition from passive to interactive media a shift as profound as Ong’s orality to literacy? My book (coming soon – hint – in an updated edition from Hampton Press called “ScreenAgers”) attempts to show that kids’ media, play, and preoccupations are a window to the cultural priorities of our future – one guided more by acceptance of an emergent reality than faith in a created one. And it was the theoretical foundation for the next three books I wrote.
And yes, I concluded, as Johnson does, that everything may be turning out quite well. As I proposed to my original publisher as a possible title: The Kids are All Right.
In 2005, these ideas are a lot more acceptable than they were ten years ago when I was struggling with them. When Playing the Future came out, parents were still blaming Bart Simpson and Beavis & Butt-head for their kids’ bad behavior. Studies hadn’t yet been done showing the positive impact of video games on children, and no one yet saw Power Rangers or animé as advanced forms. The New York Times considered the premise preposterous, and took 2/3 of a full page to say it.
So now, the fact that Johnson can make a case for the underlying complexity of pop cultural forms, and can do so in a way that compels mainstream readers and reviewers to agree with him is not a problem for me at all. It’s a confirmation of a perspective I’ve fought for and, in some cases, been derided about, for years. And if people accept Johnson’s premise – which has been very elegantly expressed – they may be more primed for the philosophical and spiritual argument I’m trying to make, myself – in occasionally more strident tones.
We’re not playing a zero-sum game, here. The more acceptance these ideas get, the more acceptance they get.
And of course, another object of the game is to get paid for making observations about our favorite TV and video games. The more of us who can figure out how to pull this one off, the better. 😉