Learning from Popular Culture (1)

Steven Johnson's new book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter popularizes an argument that has been at the core of debates in communications and cultural theory for over thirty years. The argument is that analyses of popular culture cannot be reduced to a simple and uni-dimensional approach. For the most part, the analysis of video games, for example, has focused on their negative effects upon children. There may be some validity to suggestions that young children are not able to discriminate with enough acuity to explore the differences between real life and gameplay. The counter argument is that a great deal of what we describe as play among children is filled with violence and aggressive behaviour. In general, and Johnson makes the same mistake, it is difficult to come to conclusions about the impact of the media both on children and adults.

It would take a long and detailed empirical study not of the behaviour of individuals, but of their reactions to the experiences of engaging with popular cultural artifacts. Note the two words, reactions and experiences. How long does it take you to articulate your reactions to a television show or to a film? Furthermore, which part of your discourse reveals the truths about what you are saying? The complexities of analysis and reflection surrounding these issues are rarely dealt with in the popular media. Rather, in a lovely irony, the popular media generally trash their own activities pointing to the dangers and never analysing the audiences they make claims about other than through the most primitive of survey tools. I would argue that we know very little about the impact of the media and popular culture and I therefore welcome Johnson's intervention in the debate. As with any analysis, it would take more than a simple set of generalized assumptions to really investigate what happens when viewers engage with various aspects of popular culture. In any case, popular culture is not a monolith. There are as many counter-arguments as there are arguments about its value and relationship to everyday life.