Analysis of “TV Makes Us Smarter”
Steven Johnson in his New York Times article “Watching TV Makes You Smarter” argues that the increased complexity of TV plot lines has contributed to an increased intelligence of viewers. Whereas in the past TV shows typically followed a single plot line and had a single protagonist, today, shows such as “24” and “Lost” among many others follow extremely complex plotlines that involve multiple characters, that blur the lines between good guys and bad guys, and while the moral issues are not as clean cut as they were in the past. There are several ways of interpreting this data. One is that television viewers are more intelligent and are therefore demanding higher degrees of intelligent programming. A second way of interpreting this is that post modernism and it’s affects on human consciousness and art is leading to more nuanced works of art in all spheres. Television is also a fairly new medium of expression and so it is naturally for a change to occur with in it. Johnson believes that television is making us smarter, more intelligent and argues that this is why programing is getting more complicated, involving more characters and containing more nuanced plot lines.
Johnson believes that there is money to be made in making audiences more intelligent. He writes that, “the entertainment industry isn't increasing the cognitive complexity of its products for charitable reasons. The Sleeper Curve exists because there's money to be made by making culture smarter” (Johnson, 5). One important thing to establish early on is if TV can affect learning and intelligence in the first place. The only way to do that is not to speculate but to look at actual studies on the issue. I do not fault Johnson for not including this in his essay, since this was beyond the scope of his argument. The Discovery Channel lists in its article “5 Factors that Affect Human” Intelligence different things that can affect and increase human intelligence. Environment plays an important role in kinds of intelligence (Discovery, 6). Americans watch a large amount of television. On average according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average person in the countries watches 2.8 hours of television per day. It is clearly part of the environment of everyday Americans. This corroborates Johnson’s argument. Regardless of which argument for the cause of more intelligent television, there is one thing that no one disputes, that television has become more complex. This also means that Americans have better cognitive aptitude for understanding and interpretation of TV programming. One would ask the question of what led to this change. TV rates are one thing that has risen in the last fifty years.
The Sleeper Curve is the name Johnson gives to the phenomenon of audiences becoming more intelligent by watching more intelligent TV. He coins the term The Sleeper Curve” form Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper.” This is an apt term because Woody Allen was a creator of films that fit the cognitive category of films that make people more intelligent. He “believe[s] 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.” (Johnson, 1). Johnson brings up what he sees as a “counterargument” to his argument that the television makes people more intelligent.
Johnson does not think that TV should be the only or even the dominant means of relating information and teaching. He writes that, “In pointing out some of the ways that popular culture has improved our minds, I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves.” He does however have a problem with what he feels in an unfair characterization of television leading to a dumbing down culture and being a moral deprivation. He thinks that television should not be judged by it’s moral content or value system but its affect on the mind. He continues the second part of this writing, “I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves. What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of a show's violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind” (Johnson, 5). Johnson still believes that other ways and interaction with the world should play a crucial role in that. He does though believe that there is a clear correlation between television viewing and intelligence. He would see the causation of intelligence, and the reason for that causation being the difficult story narratives that television requires of people to engage with.
He does not necessarily characterize TV as positive when he calls it a “Shared” obsession of young people and old people. But this “obsession is not a” mindless obsession, because it can be used for the betterment of people if it is teaching them something in the process. He wants culture not to watch only TV and see it as a vice, but to see it as something that in moderation is a fundamentally good thing for society. There is the fact that TV is here, it is a big part of people’s life and it is here to stay so since it cannot be beaten, will not be outlawed, it would be best to embrace it. He writes that, “Too often we imagine the blurring of kid and grown-up cultures as a series of violations” (Johnson, 5). Johnson sees TV and its place in the context of other technological advances. He compares it to social networks. Johnson then is not arguing that television can be used to inform with mediums such as documentaries, or language, or musical instrument leanings, but through their complex weaving of social situations. The type of intelligence that it is promoting then would be a social intelligence.
Johnson’s argument is counter to a traditional analysis of television. But his point if valid. Americans do watch a lot of television. But in many ways they are still a dominant educational power of science and technology in the world. So if TV is so toxic it would be fair to assume that things would be worse off then they are. Television is here to stay, so it is important to see it’s merits and not always just rally against what can be its excesses.
Globe, The. "5 Factors that Affect Human Intelligence : Discovery Channel."Discovery : Science, History, Space, Tech, Sharks, News! : Discovery Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/curiosity/topics/5-factors-that-affect-human-intelligence.htm>.
Johnson, Steven. "The New York Times > Magazine > Watching TV Makes You Smarter." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html?pagewanted=1>.
Month. " American Time Use Survey Summary ." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr