Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter is a book by Steven Berlin Johnson. In the book, Johnson claims that popular culture – and in particular television shows and video games – has grown more complex and demanding over time and is making us smarter.
Johnson is quick to point out that by no means does the Sleeper Curve imply that popular culture has become superior to traditional culture: what "the Sleeper Curve undermines is not the premise that mass culture pales in comparison to High Art in its aesthetic and intellectual riches".
Then, he establishes the connection between brain chemistry and the physics of a virtual world: "If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you'll find human brains drawn to those systems, even if they're made up of virtual characters and simulated sidewalks. It's not the subject matter of these games that attracts – if that were the case, you'd never see twenty-somethings following absurd rescue-the-princess storylines like the best selling Zelda series on the Nintendo platform. It's the reward system that draws those players in, and keeps their famously short attention spans locked on the screen. No other form of entertainment offers that cocktail of reward and exploration".
In other words, Johnson claims that the environment inherent to video games stimulates our brains to produce opioids and reward the player unlike any other form of entertainment. Thus, this strengthens his arguments that we need to evaluate the "form" of video games, rather than the content because there is an implication that something more complex is involved. Rather, he argues that the beneficial elements of video games and television arise from their format.
Johnson introduces the concept of the Autism Quotient or the capacity a person has for determining and understanding the interpersonal connections between people insofar as their emotional intelligence will allow them. This is determined by how low the score is; the lower the AQ score the higher the ability to determine these interpersonal connections. He writes, "People with low AQ scores are particularly talented at reading emotional cues, anticipating the inner thoughts and feelings of other people, a skill that is sometimes called mind reading...Television turns out to be a brilliant medium for assessing other people's emotional intelligence or AQ—a property that is too often ignored when critics evaluate the medium's carrying capacity for thoughtful content". So, insofar as television programming can be said to be a vehicle for cognitive content, the Autism Quotient must be taken into account, at least according to Johnson.
Johnson also discusses social networks – groups or classes of people linked in intertwined relationships, such as a family, a group of friends, coworkers, or any set of people with a continual and substantive interaction. He writes, "Where media is concerned, this type of analysis is not adequately illustrated by narrative threads or a simple list of characters. It is better visualized as a network: a series of points connected by lines of affiliation. When we watch most reality shows, we are implicitly building these social network maps in our heads, a map not so much of plotlines as of attitudes: Nick has a thing for Amy, but Amy may just be using Nick; Bill and Kwame have a competitive friendship". Because everyday human social interactions are more complex than a linear series of events, Johnson argues that they must be visualized, even in television programming, as a web of interconnected lines in reference to all occurring social interaction.
In film, Johnson highlights the recent trend of mind-bending films: Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pulp Fiction. He argues these films have become popular despite their use of avant-garde techniques, which normally would restrict their accessibility and economic viability. The popularization of narrative experimentation in these films works to further Johnson's main thesis, which highlights an increase in complexity and viewer involvement throughout mass culture in the last twenty years.
Johnson discusses substance and texture and the way they are used to create a "reality effect": "substance" is all of the subtle, and sometimes obvious, clues that tell the audience what is happening in the show in a more direct way. For example, "When a sci-fi script inserts a non-scientist into some advanced lab who keeps asking the science geeks to explain what they're doing with that particle accelerator – that's a flashing arrow that gives the audience precisely the information they need to know in order to make sense of the plot. "Substance is the material planted amid the background texture that the viewer needs to make sense of the plot.
"'Texture' is all the arcane verbiage provided to convince the viewer that they're watching Actual Doctors At Work". Texture is what is used to make the substance more believable. For instance, in Grey's Anatomy, texture is the complicated medical jargon the actors use. Viewers are not expected to completely understand the language but it is needed to authenticate the plot.
"…Reality effects are designed to create the aura of real life through their sheer meaninglessness: the barometer doesn't play a role in the narrative, and it doesn't symbolize anything. It's just there for background texture, to create the illusion of a world cluttered with objects that have no narrative or symbolic meaning…you don't need to know what it means when the surgeons start shouting about OPCAB and saphenous veins as they perform a bypass on ER". The reality effects are created in concery with the texture to give the show more reliability; they enforce the believability of images as well as verbiage.