Everything Bad is Good For You

by July 23, 2006

Recent travels have taken me through Steven Johnson’s latest book Everything Bad is Good for You. I’m a big fan of Johnson’s previous work, Interface Culture, and used to kick-off the graduate and undergraduate Interface Design courses I taught with the first chapter (PDF) and following quote from the book.

“The most dynamic and innovative region of the modern world reveals itself to us only through the anonymous middlemen of interface design.”

Though Everything Bad is Good for You does not continue Johnson’s discourse about the impact of interface design on culture, it does echo some related themes previously discussed on Functioning Form.

Johnson’s primary point is that popular media such as video games and television have positive cognitive benefits rarely discussed due to society’s focus on the negative impact of the content therein (violence, sex, etc.). He argues that the mental agility required to enjoy many of today’s popular shows, games, and more may be directly responsible for the overall increasing intelligence of our society.

  • Games: “Games force you to make decisions. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning how to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situation, consulting your long-term goals, then deciding.”
  • Television: “Over the last half century, television has steadily increased the demands it put on mental facilities through: multi-threaded narratives, increased subtlety, multiple external references, and complex social networks.”
  • Internet: “The rise of the Internet challenged our minds in three fundamental and related ways: by virtue of being participatory, by forcing users to learn new interfaces, and by creating new channels of social interaction.”

Games & User Experience

The structure and design of game play described by Johnson provides a number of interesting parallels to social Web application design.

“In the gameworld, reward is everywhere. The universe is literally teeming with objects that deliver very clearly articulated rewards. Most of the crucial work in game interface design revolves around keeping players notified of potential rewards available to them, and how much those rewards are currently needed.”
“If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you’ll find human brains drawn to those systems.”
“Just as we saw in the world of games, learning the intricacies of a new interface can be a genuine pleasure. This is a story that is not often enough told in describing our evolving relationship with software.”

Early Adopters

“The way to attract the [influencers] of the world is to make products complex enough that they need experts to decipher them. Key influencers like to think of themselves as operating on the cutting edge, detecting patterns or trends in cultural forms that ordinary consumers don’t perceive until someone points them out.”
“As the new technologies started to roll out in shorter and shorter cycles, we grew more comfortable with the process of probing a new form of media, learning its idiosyncrasies and its distortions, its symbolic architecture and its rules of engagement. Eventually you get to a generation that welcomes the challenge of new technologies.”