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The new literacy of television

Late last week, Marc Andreessen pulled a quote from a New Yorker article written in 1951 about television:

The most encouraging word we have so far had about television came from a grade-school principal we encountered the other afternoon.

“They say it’s going to bring back vaudeville,” he said, “but I think it’s going to bring back the book.”

Before television, he told us, his pupils never read; that is, they knew how to read and could do it in school, but their reading ended there. Their entertainment was predominantly pictorial and auditory โ€” movies, comic books, radio.

Now, the principal said, news summaries are typed out and displayed on the television screen to the accompaniment of soothing music, the opening pages of dramatized novels are shown, words are written on blackboards in quiz and panel programs, commercials are spelled out in letters made up of dancing cigarettes, and even the packages of cleansers and breakfast foods and the announcers exhibit for identification bear printed messages.

It’s only a question of time, our principal felt, before the new literacy of the television audience reaches the point where whole books can be held up to the screen and all their pages slowly turned.

This sounds far fetched and Andreessen belittles the prediction, but is it really that outlandish? Literacy rates in the US have risen since the advent of television (I am not suggesting a correlation) and Steven Johnson suggests in Everything Bad Is Good For You that TV is making us smarter.

If you stop thinking of TV in the specific sense as a box on which ABC, CBS, and NBC are shown and instead imagine it in the general sense as a service that pipes content into the home to be shown on a screen, the prediction hits pretty close to the mark. The experience of using the web is not so different than reading pages of words that are “held up to the screen” while we scroll slowly through them. If we can imagine that what Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush described as the “televised book” and the “memex” corresponds to today’s web, why not give our high school principal here the same benefit of the doubt?

Rufus Griscom interviews Steven Johnson about television,

Rufus Griscom interviews Steven Johnson about television, video games, and Everything Bad is Good for You for Nerve.

Update: This article appears to have dropped behind Nerve’s paywall. Sorry about that.

Steven Johnson’s open letter to Hillary Clinton

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.”

Everything Bad is Good for You

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 (
- 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 (
- Comments on Everything Bad Goes Public (
- 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.