Is popular culture really making us dumber or smarter?

Amusing Ourselves to Death and Everything Bad is Good for You

With so much crap in our everyday media, it’s not hard to imagine that the human race is ultimately heading on a downward spiral.

However, a more recent counter-argument might revolve around our increased involvement with our own personal media. I’m talking about everything from choosing which music mp3s to bring along on our iPods, to what issues we want to blog about tomorrow. We are making even more decisions than before on what we want to read, listen, and watch. More importantly though, I also see us talking, writing and playing more frequently than before.

Which way are we heading then?
Is popular culture making us dumber or smarter?

Back in Oct 2004, I had an informal conversation with a fellow Communication graduate classmate about the healthiness of entertainment media on youths across cultures, be it video game, the Internet or television in Singapore or America. It was then I mentioned a highly relevant book I enjoyed called “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985) by Neil Postman. In it, Neil argues that “mediums of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them, that television is the primary means of communication for our culture, that television has the property of converting conversations into entertainment and so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared, since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues.” As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the massage”.

A similar issue was raised back in April 2005 when Steven McDermott (of Singabloodypore) mentioned how the Singaporean bloggers were mostly “infantile” in their approach to serious issues. He said that “… I am aware of some very mature blogs written by anonymous bloggers, to name just two, the likes of Wannabe Lawyer, Singapore Commentator stand out but go read the likes of MrBrown, Xiaxue and other certain blogs that shall not be named, and it is full of infantile concerns or pulling silly faces”. Some bloggers then argued on the value of satire having a more powerful effect than straight-laced diatribes. I personally do believe that “play” is a very potent pedagogical tool both for the producer and the viewer. Adding more credence to this argument, we’ve recently seen satire based on the local elections (Listen to the “Tur Kua” incident) becoming extremely popular. Even the government has responded to this not by increasing blogging or podcasting regulations, but by lightening up on them. Bravo!

Perhaps there is still hope for us.

Steven Johnson argues on the side of the subtle education popular culture provides. Having authored “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter” (2005), Johnson claims that “popular culture in general and tv shows and computer games in particular have grown more complex and demanding over the time and are in fact making us smarter.” He refers to shows like the Sopranos and Lost having complicated plotlines. I’d like to add that Lost in particular demonstrated participatory aspects of the media since fans have ben developing their own theories and discussing them on forums and blogs.

Still, it isn’t hard for us to imagine that laissez-faire capitalism would diminish the likelihood of most popular media from being that useful. As such, Johnson updated his 2006 paperback edition by adding that it is the technology that drives popular “participatory” media that he values the most for getting this far. To get a better sense of this, Johnson recently appeared on The Colbert Report and spoke about the same thing in the Daily Show last year, which is available on YouTube (via Kotaku)

I’ve given you both sides of the story. Tell me where you think we’re heading given the present trend in popular media/culture.

5 thoughts on “Is popular culture really making us dumber or smarter?

  1. I think I want meepoh without chilli, lots of fishball and Tur Kua, please.

    At the end of the day, what is important is what goes into the stomach.

  2. And now there’s even Brain Age for the DS! We’ll be saved after all.

    As a more serious answer: I think we may be growing smarter collectively. Mastering all knowledge has been impossible ever since after Leonardo’s age. Now it’s become impossible to know even the greater part of a single tiny discipline. And yet new tools and technologies are emerging everyday.

    Yes, we’re finally becoming the cybernetic neural network šŸ˜‰

    (I might have to think some more and work out this thought, but at least it’s the gist of it. You elaborate on it.)

  3. Napfisk: You’re talking about two things here… 1) Brain as a muscle you can train (BrainAge), 2) Collective Intelligence (

    I am planning to get a DS myself given the deals floating around everywhere. It’d be especially awesome once the DS Opera web browser comes out in a month or two. Brain Age is interesting in that it treats your brain as a muscle. I can’t vouch for this, but going at it regularly does improve your score eventually. I’m willing to try it and see if I can do sort restaurant dinner bills faster. šŸ˜›

  4. Sometimes, when trying to explain things to some (ahem, students) I really wonder if we’re collectively getting smarter. There are so many things in our (American) culture that seem to have resulted in lazier people as a whole, that it’s hard to consider an alternative. I regularly deal with people who don’t bother to look things up, double check facts and get all the information before making a decision, which is such a shame, because I think the actual information has become much more accessible. I think people are more succeptible to easy information, that the change in technology etc has caused us to expect answers/information immediately and we still get frustrated with haveing to work or wait for the right information. That’s why we’re still stupid.

    God I hope that makes sense.

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