Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Tuesday, May 10, 2021

Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter” presents some intriguing concepts about how our hyper-media/technological environment is growing, rather than frying, our brains.

The central premise of the book is the “Sleeper Curve”, inspired by the joke foundation of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Conventional wisdom on the body digital — that it’s turning us into tranced-out zombies — has been wrong all along.

Or has it? As a prime example, he focuses on the deeper complexity of media these days, especially television shows:

Take television. In the last two decades, TV, particularly long-form drama, has moved from simple, predictable formulas to what Johnson calls Most Repeatable Programming: narratives with multiple plot lines, many characters, threads that continue across many episodes and storytelling techniques that challenge viewers to pay close attention, remember many details and infer information they’re not directly given.

In the book, Johnson charts it out. The plot line of a Dragnet episode is a single straight line. The chart for a typical Sopranos episode has nine interlocking plots involving dozens of characters, and most of those plot lines develop over several episodes or even several TV seasons.

Watching The Sopranos (or Alias or The West Wing or 24) is much harder work than watching Dragnet, and that’s making us smarter, Johnson says.

But why has TV become more complex? Johnson argues it’s because of economics and the Internet.

Thirty years ago, networks ruled TV and shows made their money in first run. Consumers had no videotapes or DVDs, no cable channels offering endless reruns. A show succeeded if people could understand it easily in one viewing.

Not now. TV series make much more money in syndication than in first run, and to succeed, they need that Most Repeatable quality: They must remain interesting through multiple viewings. They do it by becoming more complex, so a viewer can watch a Seinfeld episode for the fifth or fifteenth time and still find something new in it.

The Internet complements this effect by letting viewers analyze these more complex shows and share their thoughts with other fans. Thanks to forums and blogs, everybody really is a critic.

From this examination of entertainment patterns, Johnson concludes that it’s the preferred, and indeed optimal, way to process all types of information. And yet, I can’t help but notice that the examples presented in this article seem awfully anecdotal.

For instance, the citation of rising IQ test scores versus descending standardized test scores over the past 25 years proves nothing: Intelligence measures are based on sheer potential, while the test scores reflect actual applied knowledge. It’s fashionable to blame the messenger when the messages don’t get through, but I don’t think the correlation means there’s a large-scale flaw in the old system.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that intense engagement in our television shows, videogames and websites means we need or want all forms of information delivered in the same manner. Fun-time stuff attaches itself to our brains because we know it’s for playtime; there’s not the same aversion to it that “work stuff” has. That’s why kids can memorize every single song they hear on the radio, but can’t commit to their history lessons. It’s not the context — it’s the material.

Obviously, it’s far from accurate to go just by one summation article/interview. I may have to check out the book itself. With these types of tomes, I usually can tell within the first 20 or 30 pages whether or not it’s going to fly with me.

UPDATE: It didn’t occur to me initially, but the pronounced increase in average household media spending over the past three decades seems to be a pertinent addition to Johnson’s overarching argument.

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 05/10/2021 10:15:08 PM
Category: Media, Tech, Society
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no sweat
I haven’t seen the ad, but according to today’s Stuart Elliott email column (no link for it on the New York Times), there was something interesting in Alex Rodriguez’s latest deodorant commercial:

A Reader Asks: There is a commercial for Speed Stick deodorant starring Alex Rodriguez. He’s talking about how tough a town New York can be. But at the end, there is something that I noticed that I don’t think was really part of the message.

The product is shown in front of a backdrop of a baseball stadium at night. You can clearly see the light fixtures. Some bulbs are missing but the lights are on. In the main fixture, it appears that the bulbs that are on are in the configuration of the characters “E5.” Was this on purpose?

Stuart Elliott: “E5″ means error on the third baseman, and since Mr. Rodriguez is the third baseman for the New York Yankees, it seems highly unlikely for the bulbs to spell that out. But that is indeed what viewers see in the commercial.

However, “it was entirely unintentional,” says Allison Klimerman, a spokeswoman for the Colgate-Palmolive Company in New York; the Mennen division of Colgate-Palmolive makes Speed Stick. “It ran that way for many months and no one noticed,” she adds.

Until now, that is.

Unintentional? That’s no way to fuel a conspiracy theory.

Could there have been a disgruntled Yankees fan among the production crew for the commercial, pulling a fast one? Or was it in fact intentional — implying that Rodriguez committed an “error” by taking so long to get with the right anti-stink stick?

I’m sorry I missed out on the original version. I have no interest in seeing it now, with the potential subliminal message edited out.

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 05/10/2021 09:08:24 PM
Category: Advert./Mktg., Baseball
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When “Sex and the City” character Miranda faced the prospect of abandoning Manhattan for decidedly less-chic Brooklyn, she did so only after some over-wrought agonizing.

Let’s hope the United Nations’ potential move across the East River is handled with more aplomb. I can’t imagine Kofi Annan fretting over getting tagged as a bridge-and-tunnel type.

If there is any nervousness, the delegates should take heart: You can always go back. MoMA survived its temporary displacement to Queens, after all.

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 05/10/2021 08:32:06 PM
Category: TV, Political
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answer the phone, honky!
Why is this man smiling?

Because the other night, I finally downloaded the most up-to-date version of BitPim, which enabled me to load up this TV theme song onto my cellphone, thus making it my new ringtone.

No, wait — that’s why I’m smiling.

by Costa Tsiokos, Tue 05/10/2021 02:22:58 PM
Category: TV, Tech
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