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smart teevee

Steven Johnson, who has a book coming out called Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, offers an excerpted adaptation of one segment in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. And now I'm gonna excerpt it here, because it says a lot of interesting stuff. The core of his argument is that television (and video games, for that matter) demand a new kind of attention from viewers, one that is "good" for us in that we learn to process information in complex ways. I know a lot of people who reject great television series like The Wire or Deadwood not because they are too violent or profane, but because they take too much work. Johnson says to those people, "come on down!" Read the whole thing, of course, but in the meantime, some quotes:

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 ... 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....

[A]nother kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties....

The modern viewer who watches a show like ''Dallas'' today will be bored by the content -- not just because the show is less salacious than today's soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but also because the show contains far less information in each scene, despite the fact that its soap-opera structure made it one of the most complicated narratives on television in its prime. With ''Dallas,'' the modern viewer doesn't have to think to make sense of what's going on, and not having to think is boring. Many recent hit shows -- ''24,'' ''Survivor,'' ''The Sopranos,'' ''Alias,'' ''Lost,'' ''The Simpsons,'' ''E.R.'' -- take the opposite approach, layering each scene with a thick network of affiliations. You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you're exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads.

I would add, since we just watched Deadwood last night, that there is more than one way to demand attention from viewers. The oft-noted tendency of the writers for Deadwood to give their characters speech that is downright Shakespearean is one example ... while many of the new breed of series invites (or even demands) multiple viewings in order to process information, Deadwood causes fans to re-watch episodes with closed captioning turned on, the better to ascertain just exactly what is being said.