Steven Johnson’s analysis of the newest forms of media and the mental development of the populace is exactly right. He argues that the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all. And he calls this the “sleeper curve”.
I believe that this is the one of 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. Instead, you hear dire tales of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. It’s assumed that shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years — if not 500 — is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied.
The usual counterargument here is that what media have lost in moral clarity, they have gained in realism. The real world doesn’t come in nicely packaged public-service announcements, and we’re better off with entertainment like ”The Sopranos” that reflects our fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it’s not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. There may indeed be more ”negative messages” in the mediasphere today. But that’s not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important — if not more important — is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience. That is where the Sleeper Curve becomes visible.