Smarter and Smarterer: the pop culture Sleeper Curve

by Stephen Tall on May 29, 2005

Big Brother VI began this week, and six million of us breathed a sigh of relief that, once again, our lives had some meaning: 11 weeks in which to learn to love, to hate or to shrug our shoulders with indifference as the capsuled lives of 13 total strangers are played out nightly for our viewing pleasure. Meanwhile, 54 million people will deride us for wasting our time, and sneer at television’s further endumbing of society. Which just goes to prove how vital minority opinions are as the guarantors of progress.

I sense doubt in your mind, dear reader. You may, perhaps, be wondering why I have deliberately, even provocatively, invoked the original reality TV phenomenon as a tenet of a more civilised society, when most regard it as a depressing symptom of our decline and fall into moral turpitude.

The reason is contained in a new book (more of a bookette, really), which has caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the US – Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You. His thesis is straightforward: that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

Mr Johnson examines two components, video games and television, and draws the same conclusions from his study of each – that society’s greater exposure to these cultural stimuli is ramping up our individual brainpower, both our intellectual intelligence, and our emotional intelligence. He terms this counter-intuitive riff the ‘Sleeper Curve’, a hat-tip towards the famous Woody Allen joke from his mock sci-fi film where a team of scientists from 2029 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge.

Let’s take video games, an area where I will happily confess my geek lacuna: for myself, I would much more happily curl up with an improving book. But the fact still remains that consoles have advanced from my earliest memories of playing Tetris and Pac-Man on a Spectrum 12k (back when the cassette tapes took 20 minutes to load). Video games now require a dedication and concentration in their players I find as admirable as I do incredible. For example, Mr Johnson cites one of the “walk-throughs” for ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ (apparently this is a sort of user guide which enables players to live and breathe the game in order to conquer its complexities) is 53,000 words long – about the length of his book.

Now let’s move onto an area where I’m more at home: telly. Any objective analysis of television today would recognise that it is far superior now than it once was: the scripts are sharper, the editing defter, the direction pacier, the acting subtler, and the plots smarter. UK Gold and ITV3 have provided a valuable public service in reminding viewers just how much television has advanced in the last 50 years. The number of truly dire ‘vintage’ shows is too easily forgotten by those who cling to their rose-tinted nostalgia for yesteryear: ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’, ‘Dallas’, ‘The Equaliser’ are all dreadfully plodding, with a solitary storyline somehow sustaining an hour’s half-hearted interaction between cardboard cut-out heroes and villains. Sets wobble, cameras shake, scenes drag, and over-acting is rife.

Compare them with today’s crop of the best: ‘The West Wing’, ’24’, ‘Spooks’. Electrifying and interweaving plots zing along at whip-crack speed; tight scripts pulse with wit; complex characters’ lives lay bare the full, nuanced spectrum of human emotions.

Intelligence is, on one level at least, an active response to cognitive stimuli: so the more stimuli that are thrown at us, the greater the intelligence we accrete. One of the arguments I found hardest to understand in Naomi Klein’s brilliantly written, and politically vapid, polemic ‘No Logo’ was the idea that billboard advertising (The Branding of the Cityscape, as she portentously labelled it) is somehow an intrusion into the public sphere. Not only is there nothing new in this (as she coyly admits) – just think of the number of buildings which still have the faint painted outlines of an advert for Cooper’s Marmelade, or some such product, indelibly etched into their brickwork – but her contention that advertising is of zero cultural worth is one I just don’t buy. Such hoardings may not be art (though some come damn close), but they still make you think. And that’s the point.

But is there any evidence to back up these assertions that more sophisticated pop culture is improving our intelligence quotients? Well, to be honest, as with most stats, the evidence is there if you want to find it. It’s certainly the case that IQ is increasing in absolute terms, by about three points per decade (though it’s always recalibrated to maintain the average as 100). Now of course much of this is a function of the post-war surge in prosperity: greater educational opportunities and better diets, plus the fact we’re all more savvy at completing IQ tests. Nonetheless, the increase in aptitude scores is out-stripping growth in GDP, so it cannot be the sole determinant. Surely we can attribute some of this progress at least to the pop culture which envelopes our lives?
What, then, of emotional intelligence? Isn’t contemporary society’s obsessions with its own victim status – blame the parents, blame the Government, blame anyone but yourself – fuelled by the introspection of our pop culture: for example, the meaningless navel-gazing of reality TV, and the glossy vacuity of celebrity magazines? Well, of course not. Pop culture is a creation of our society, not its creator. And, anyway, it would be an ├╝ber-meta-irony to attempt to shift responsibility for this victim mentality away from the individual towards society.

More important is what we can learn from shows such as Big Brother. The first is the capacity of the public to put aside their prejudices and take quirky contestants under their wing: Brian, the gay Irish ‘trolley dolly’, won the second series; and Nadia, a louder-than-life Spanish transsexual, triumphed in last year’s competition.

There is also a much greater awareness of the importance of body language, and what it can reveal to us about the inner thoughts of the contestants. For instance, the unfolding mental turmoil of last year’s runner-up, Jason Cowan, whose debut in leopard-print thong seemingly announced his cock-sure arrogance, was exposed by his grooming habits: the cameras showed him, seemingly unconsciously, devoting minutes at a time to touching his hair to try and get it ‘just so’. We no longer need a psychologist to let us into the secret that this is a self-affirming gesture of someone with deep insecurities. These ‘tells’ are fascinating anthropological guides to our inner neuroses, and it is programmes like Big Brother which have hard-wired our understanding of them into the mainstream.

So what lessons can we draw from this cursory paean to pop culture? The first is the extent to which markets and competition are a force for cultural good. Television executives are emboldened to create sophisticated programmes crammed with nuance and complexity because they must sustain repeated viewings on lucrative DVD box-sets. It is not the BBC licence fee which is keeping producers honest, but the realities of the bottom line.

The second lesson is the most comforting, ensuring my liberal heart continues to beat with optimism and enthusiasm for the infinite capacity of human potential. The history of popular culture is one of progress, of advancement, of improvement, not only for the media it comprises, but also for the society it reflects: let’s hope that can be its future too. In which case, I’ll still be cheering come Big Brother XXVIII.