This is one of those 'high concept' non-fiction books where the author's argument is neatly summarised by the title and subtitle. Others include Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Chris Anderson's The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: How the Many are Smarter Than the Few. Johnson's title/pitch is as follows: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter. And that's pretty much it. Contemporary television and video games are now so complex, argues Johnson, that they are actually training us in a range of vital skills, be it problem solving, pattern recognition or tracking complex social networks.
He gives examples such as The Sopranos, which spins a dense narrative, spanning dozens of characters and frequently leaving out key plot information, all the while making no concessions to newcomers or absent-minded regulars. Compare this with, say, Hill Street Blues, which was considered groundbreaking in its day, and you'll see that The Sopranos is vastly more complex.
But The Sopranos is HBO - despite its massive success, it's still not a mass-market show. However, Johnson shows that even reality TV, widely derided as brain-rotting nonsense, is far more demanding than the equivalent show of 30 years ago. The Apprentice is not great TV, Johnson admits, but it's far more sophisticated than, say, The Price is Right.
He spots the same trend elsewhere, in video games such as Grand Theft Auto, which make the 'classics' of the genre look like the repetitive time-wasters they were, or films such as Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which are almost deliberately intended to be baffling on first viewing.
Backing this up is the evidence that shows visual intelligence, IQ scores and so on are increasing. Johnson is firmly convinced that popular culture is responsible.
He makes a persuasive case but in my case he's preaching to the converted. I wonder what sceptics would make of this entertaining polemic.