kottke.org posts about Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson on the ride into Hong

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2005

Steven Johnson on the ride into Hong Kong from the airport. “The approach into Hong Kong is as breathtaking as any I’ve ever experienced.” I agree completely.

Steven Johnson’s thoughts on Web 2.0. He compares

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2005

Steven Johnson’s thoughts on Web 2.0. He compares it to a rain forest, with the information flow through the web being analogous to the efficient nutrient flow through a forest. “Essentially, the Web is shifting from an international library of interlinked pages to an information ecosystem, where data circulate like nutrients in a rain forest.” Compare with Tim O’Reilly’s recent thoughts on the subject.

Steven Johnson reports on Dodgeball for Discover

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2005

Steven Johnson reports on Dodgeball for Discover magazine and proceeds to riff on cities, Jane Jacobs, and the Long Tail. When considering the effects of the Long Tail, there’s a different between being able to d/l music by an obscure band when you live in a rural area and having the opportunity of seeing that band in person with other likeminded folks. (via dens)

Excellent little piece by Steven Johnson on

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2005

Excellent little piece by Steven Johnson on the end of Six Feet Under: “I had a genuine feeling last night watching the finale that I was going to miss these people, which I can honestly say I’ve never had with a television show before.” I’m still thinking about that last episode, three days later.


posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2005

I recently reread Steven Johnson’s Emergence and was struck by how familar it all seemed, even for a reread. Flipping through the bibliography at the end, I realized why: much of my reading list over the past four years has come directly from those few pages in the back of the book:

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manual De Landa
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Pattern on the Stone by Danny Hillis
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Nonzero by Robert Wright

Since reading the book, I’ve also heard talks or read articles by other folks mentioned in the bibliography, like Franz De Waal, Eric Bonabeau, Kevin Kelly, James Howard Kunstler, Marvin Minsky, etc. I’d read a few things on the topic before Emergence, but it was really a catalyst for a area of study I didn’t quite know I was focusing on until much later.

Steven Johnson’s open letter to Hillary Clinton

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2005

Steven Johnson’s open letter to Hillary Clinton regarding her call for a Congressional investigation about the effects of video games on children. “I know a congressional investigation into [the violence and hostility in high school] football won’t play so well with those crucial swing voters, but it makes about as much sense as an investigation into the pressing issue that is Xbox and PlayStation 2.”

Steven Johnson appearing on The Daily Show

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2005

Steven Johnson appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart tomorrow.

Gladwell reviews Everything Bad is Good for

posted by Jason Kottke   May 10, 2005

Gladwell reviews Everything Bad is Good for You for the New Yorker.

Everything Bad is Good for You

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2005

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to read Steven Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad is Good for You:

Drawing from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and literary theory, Johnson argues that the junk culture we’re so eager to dismiss is in fact making us more intelligent. A video game will never be a book, Johnson acknowledges, nor should it aspire to be — and, in fact, video games, from Tetris to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto, have been shown to raise IQ scores and develop cognitive abilities that can’t be learned from books. Likewise, successful television, when examined closely and taken seriously, reveals surprising narrative sophistication and intellectual demands.

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 culture…in 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, but I still asked Steven about it in an email I sent him shortly after finishing the book. Here’s a gently edited excerpt:

It was hard for me to read about pop culture making us smarter because I’m so conditioned to think otherwise, but in the specific way you describe, I absolutely agree with your arguments. There’s obviously a lot more effort and learning involved watching The Apprentice than in watching The Joker’s Wild. The gaming bit of the book even influenced my thinking on this post about Katamari Damacy.

I guess I’m still kind of wondering if the positive effect you talk about balances out the negative effects (if any). If TV these days is conditioning us to be more socially agile (as far as keeping track of social connections), what else is it conditioning us to think and feel? Maybe that’s outside the question of whether it’s making us smarter or not. I ran across this interview of David Foster Wallace from 1993 a couple of weeks ago, and Wallace is a notorious TV critic, although I think he would pretty much agree with most of EBIGFY:

“But what’s seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV’s seductions are. It’s seldom acknowledged that viewers’ relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound.”

But I don’t think he’d agree that TV is good for you:

“I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art.”

Is media whose primary purpose (through, as you argue, the addition of complexity) is to spend more time in the lives of the people who consume it (through repeat viewings, game replayings, etc.) really good for people? I have doubts.

Near the end of the book, you offhandedly introduce the familiar metaphor of the media diet (I think it’s only mentioned once on p194). Dunno why exactly, but it really grabbed me. On the one hand, it’s taken for granted among people I know who tend to consume lots of media that media is something that needs be approached in a dietary sense. I need to read more or watch less TV or watch better TV or balance out my online reading with some books…that’s just how we think now. I don’t think that concept existed 20-30 years ago but now there’s so much media that we need to balance it all. Tying that back into food, the hunter gatherers wouldn’t have known what a balanced diet was because they were eating an all meat and wild fruit/veg diet, basically whatever they could get their hands on. When agriculture rolled around and was greatly enhanced by industrialization, we were overwhelmed by choice and the idea of a balanced diet became a possibility and necessity.

At the same time, we have a situation in the US now where food is engineered to maximize the amount purchased by an individual. That means larger portions of high-sugar, high-fat foods….lots and lots of stuff that tastes good and makes you want to eat more of it as soon as possible. And it’s making us fat and unhealthy. Media is engineered to work much the same way and I’m wondering if that’s a good thing.

For those that want to read more about it, the book and the ideas contained therein have been excerpted in a couple of places already:

- Watching TV Makes You Smarter (NY Times Magazine)
- Everything Bad Goes Public (stevenberlinjohnson.com)
- Dome Improvement (Wired magazine)

and is being discussed in various corners of the blogosphere and in the media:

-Comments on Watching TV Makes You Smarter (kottke.org)
- Comments on Everything Bad Goes Public (kottke.org)
- Sparklines (Almost) in the Times, and Complexity Is Good For You (Anil Dash)
- Get Smart (Reason Online)
- Thinking Outside the Idiot Box (Slate)
- sleeper curve economics (Michael Sippey)
- Are Video Games Good for You? (Michael J. Madison)
- Don’t kill your television (Salon)
- Children, Eat Your Trash! (Time)
- Does watching TV make you stupid? (Stay Free!)
- Brain candy (Boston Globe)
- Bad is Good (The Sunday Times)

And Steven is trying to keep up with it all on his web site.

Steven Johnson: “Imagine an alternate world identical

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2005

Steven Johnson: “Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books”. “Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying — which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements — books are simply a barren string of words on the page.”

Audio from the Who Owns Culture? talk

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2005

Audio from the Who Owns Culture? talk by Lessig, Tweedy, and Johnson now online. Streaming audio or mp3.

Steven Johnson says watching TV makes you smarter

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2005

Steven Johnson says watching TV makes you smarter. The argument is that media has had to get more cognitively challenging to hold the attention of viewers. Evolutionarily speaking, attention is the scarce commodity that creates competition here, driving adaptation in the direction of more social and narrative complexity to hold that attention.

Interface Culture

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2004

How well does the 6 year-old analysis of how we use and will use information technology contained in the pages of Interface Culture hold up? Not too bad, actually. Consider the following paragraph from the “Windows” chapter on what metaforms the Web might be capable of supporting (paragraph breaks and links mine):

Over the next decade, this stitching together of different news and opinion sources will slowly become a type of journalism in its own right, a new form of reporting that synthesizes and digests the great mass of information disseminated online everyday. (Clipping services have occupied a comparable niche for years, though their use is largely limited to corporate executives and other journalists.)

Total News gives us a glimpse of what these new information filters will look like, but the site neglects the defining element of a successful metaform, which is an actual editorial or evaluative sensibility. Total News simply repackages the major online news services indiscriminately; it may be a more convenient format, but it adds nothing to the actual content of the information. More advanced news “browsers” will include a genuine critical temperament, a perspective on the world, an editorial sensibility that governs the decisions about which stories to repackage. The possibilities are endless: a filter for left-leaning economic and political stories; a filter for sports coverage that emphasizes the psychological dimension of professional athletics; a filter that focuses exclusively on independent film news and commentary.

The beautiful thing about this new meta-journalism is that it doesn’t require a massive distribution channel or extravagant licensing fees. A single user with a Web connection and only the most rudimentary HTML skills can upload his or her overview of the day’s news. If the editorial sensibility is sharp enough, this kind of metajournalism could easily find enough of an audience to be commercially sustainable, given the limited overhead required to run such a service.

When the whole blog thing blew up huge and then people like Rafat Ali, Andrew Sullivan, and Nick Denton started making money off of them, Johnson must have danced around the apartment in his underpants (perhaps like Tom Cruise in Risky Business) shouting, “I told you so, I told you so, I called the hell out of that one! In your face!”