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This is a groundbreaking book by a clever man who goes too far.

Steven Johnson is the cheerleading captain for new entertainment technology. A regular columnist about emerging technology and the bestselling author of Mind Wide Open and other books, Johnson has used his understanding of the mind and popular culture to make two novel arguments:

1. The popular culture is not “dumbing down.” Rather, it is getting more sophisticated.

2. This increasingly-sophisticated culture is making us smarter.

The first argument, he makes convincingly. I never would have believed it, if it weren’t for Johnson, but he leaves no doubt that today’s entertainment is far more sophisticated than, say, the entertainment in the 1970s.

The second argument, however, fails almost as decisively as the first argument succeeds.

Both arguments revolve around a thing that Johnson calls “the Sleeper Curve,” a learning trend in which entertainment gets increasingly sophisticated and silently strengthens our cognitive abilities without us realizing it.

With respect to pop culture’s increasing sophistication, Johnson addresses four types of modern entertainment: video games, TV shows, movies, Internet. His observation about these media is that, unlike traditional pop entertainment, they require their audience to follow closely and to participate.

TV shows, for instance, traditionally offered only one narrative, along with maybe one comical subplot: two things for the viewer to follow, plus four or five characters. With Hill Street Blues, TV shows started offering much more. A typical Hill Street Blues episode would weave nine or so different storylines into the narrative, plus many primary and secondary characters.

After Hill Street Blues, the number of nighttime dramas employing these devices swelled: St. Elsewhere, ER, thirtysomething, Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, The West Wing, The Sopranos. Perhaps the most sophisticated show to date, The Sopranos routinely weaves together 12 or more storylines with a dizzying number of primary characters, plus its narrative requires the viewer to keep track of events from previous episodes.

Johnson makes similar observations about other entertainment technology (especially today’s complex videogames), and he makes his case well: today’s entertainment is smarter (and better) than yesteryear’s.

But then he claims this increasing sophistication is actually making us smarter.

His hypothesis basically boils down to this: All this stuff requires us to work and concentrate so much more than Starsky and Hutch, therefore, it must be making us smarter.

Although he presents a little bit of evidence for this, the evidence simply doesn’t add up to his conclusion. He basically takes a bunch of facts about increasing trends in IQ’s and two or three vague studies, throws them in the air, and says, “Look, that’s proof that all this sophistication is making us smarter.”

I can sympathize with Johnson, to an extent. He makes such a convincing case that the pop culture has gotten more sophisticated, and we’re spending so much time using it, it would be a shame for it not to amount to something.

But he has no evidence that it does. He spends the most time talking about IQ scores, which have been increasing lately. How lately? Over the course of the last 100 years! The new cultural sophistication, which by Johnson’s account started in the early 1980s, can’t account for the IQ increases prior to the early 1980s. To get around this, he says IQ’s have been increasing at a sharper rate in recent years. His support: “average scores in the Netherlands . . . increased 8 points between 1972 and 1982.”

This piece of evidence is so inapt that I feel like I’m beating up a straw man: Hill Street Blues was an American show that started in 1981. The sophisticated video games Johnson lauds didn't begin to get produced until the late 1970s (Atari’s Adventure debuted in 1978).

To be blunt, Johnson’s facts in support of this second argument are absolutely horrible.

What he needs is a test case: find someone who didn’t get the benefit of all this pop culture sophistication from the early 1980s to the early 2000s and see what happened to his brain.

By Johnson’s account (implied at several places), such a test case person couldn’t appreciate today’s TV shows. Not having the benefit of the Sleeper Curve, such a person would be baffled by the shows and turn them off.

Well, I have such a test case.


Which is why I decided to write this review.

I watched some Hill Street Blues episodes back in the early 1980s, but after that, I didn’t watch another nighttime drama or nighttime soap opera for twenty years, with the exception of L.A. Law (which I watched for the first two seasons, until 1988). It wasn’t intentional. Maybe I was drinking too much, or carousing too much, or studying too much, or having too many babies. I also didn’t own a TV from 1988 to 1991. But the important fact is, I didn’t watch any of those shows.

Until 2003. That year, my older brother told me that I’d enjoy The Sopranos, and loaned me the first season on DVD.

I watched it, a little reluctantly since I simply didn’t watch much TV.

Guess what? I loved it, and I have subsequently watched all the other seasons. I loved the layered plots, the character development, and the interplay of mundane and evil in Tony Soprano’s life.

But according to Johnson, I should have been “disoriented” by all the sophistication. I should have had a difficult time following all those complex threads.

That didn’t happen.

In fact, I liked The Sopranos so much that I started reading online articles about it.

Again guess what? The writers were basically making the same points I appreciated when watching the episode. I never read an article and thought, “Boy, I had no idea all that was happening.”

And (just one more time) again guess what? I didn’t have to concentrate very hard while watching it. In fact, I watched many of the shows after coming home from the bar with a bunch of beer in me. Yet I followed along just fine and was able to pick up the narrative easily when I started watching sober a few days later.

My Sopranos experience simply couldn’t have been possible, if Johnson’s theory that the popular culture is making us smarter is accurate. I hadn’t indulged the pop culture (I also eschewed videogames after age 18) and therefore hadn’t benefited from the Sleeper Curve.

If Johnson’s hypothesis is correct, I should’ve been stuck with the mental television rigor of a lad fed with Happy Days and The Brady Bunch, but I wasn’t.

I realize this autobiographical anecdote isn’t the greatest evidence.

But it’s a helluva lot better than the evidence offered in this book, and until I see something better – much better – I’ll persist in my belief that TV and related media don't make us smarter.