Watching TV Makes You Smarter

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today’s media. —Steven JohnsonWatching TV Makes You Smarter (NY Times (will expire))

Just in time for TV Turn-off Week.

Johnson introduces daytime soap operas late in this article, after describing the narrative thread of Hill Street Blues. But that show, along with Dallas and others of a similar ilk, were billed as “nighttime soaps,” so Johnson’s decision to withhold that bit of information creates the appearance of a complexity that doesn’t really need to be there. Of course, that’s the choice of the author — what are you going to withhold as part of the payoff, what will you give away in order to tease your audience.

The Love Boat featured two or three plots that dealt with visiting passengers, one of which typically involved one member of the recurring cast, and if memory serves, there was also a comic subplot dealing with the crew. But M*A*S*H (1971-1983) was a half-hour show that featured two or sometimes three plots happening at once, all designed to give the strong cast of supporting characters something to do (especially in later years, as the show got less farcical and more dramatically experimental).

Johnson’s book, from which this article is an excerpt, will doubtless cover more ground. I’m not so sure that passively consuming television is the same thing as reading, but as Johnson notes, some of the best TV on today brings with it a plethora of fan websites and other forms of interacting with the primary narrative. I’ll withhold my final judgement until I’ve read more, but I’m looking forward to it.