Sunday, April 24, 2005

All Back Full

From Watching TV Makes You Smarter by Steven Johnson, as printed in the New York Times Magazine:
Judged by [a] morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years -- if not 500 -- is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied.

The usual counterargument here is that what media have lost in moral clarity, they have gained in realism. The real world doesn't come in nicely packaged public-service announcements, and we're better off with entertainment like ''The Sopranos'' that reflects our fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it's not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. There may indeed be more ''negative messages'' in the mediasphere today. But that's not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important -- if not more important -- is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience. That is where the Sleeper Curve becomes visible.
It seems like he's making a false distinction (partially, at least) - the reason we're better off with realism is that it tends to be more complex than straightforward morality plays... then again that's just one route to complexity. The whole article is interesting.

Link via Dan Drezner [he quoted the passage I quoted too.]

Somewhat relatedly, the television critic for the Arizona Republic has been pushing the idea that we're currently in a TV golden age. I haven't seen most of the shows he's comparing... but it still seems like there's something there.

UPDATE: Now Steven Johnson's name is spelled correctly and I've added a link to his blog... two things I picked up on from reading a recent post at the Smart Bohemian. I'll also now note that the excerpt above and the article in the NYT are from an upcoming book, Everything Bad is Good for You.


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