Johnson argues that the pop culture we love to trash -- video games and TV -- are smarter and more complex than they've ever been, and that they are contributing to making us a smarter society.
No, a video game's not a book, Johnson says, and he's not suggesting that people give up reading, but video games develop different sets of intellectual and perceptual skills that are just as important as the skills developed by reading. And as video games have gotten more complicated to learn and play -- visualize the different levels of complexity, for instance, from Pong to Pac-Man to Tetris to Myst -- the skill sets needed to play them well have also gotten larger and more complex.
As for TV, Johnson points out that in every genre, the best TV shows are more complicated, more open-ended, and trickier to follow than they were 30 years ago. A show like Dallas, which in its day had a larger cast and more intricate sets of interpersonal relationships than most, now looks painfully simplistic when compared to today's 24 or Lost. In today's TV, more happens in an hour, and less of it is instantly comprehensible than ever before.
Even the genre that gets the least respect -- reality TV -- is vastly different from game shows of the past. When you watch Jeopardy, you know exactly how the game is going to be played, and the players aren't connected in any meaningful way; watching Survivor, on the other hand, requires the ability to analyze an enormous number of social relationships and to adjust to constantly changing expectations and surprise twists.
And Johnson presents evidence to support his claim that we're getting smarter. The average IQ score in the US, for instance, has been steadily rising for several decades now, and the rate of increase is itself has gotten larger in the last 20 years. (This trend has been somewhat masked by the fact that IQ tests are re-calibrated every few years in order to keep the average score at 100; the re-calibrations have consistently had to take into effect that the average test-taker was doing better.)
But what about all that sex and violence, you may ask? Johnson addresses the issue briefly, suggesting that we seriously overstate its impact on behavior. A 2004 study from the Departments of Justice and Education, for instance, showed that violent crime in American schools dropped by half between 1992 and 2002, a major drop among precisely that demographic that is theoretically the most at risk from exposure to violent media.
It's a fascinating book, and entertaining to read, too.