I still haven't read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, so I can't speak to all the arguments Christine Rosen raises against it in "Playgrounds of the Self," her sometimes insightful, sometimes infuriating essay in the current New Atlantis. But she commits at least two fouls in her critique.
Here's the first:
Johnson is not, as he repeatedly claims, challenging the conventional wisdom; he is reaffirming it. In a democratic culture, people want to be told that fulfilling their desires is actually good for them, that self-interest is also self-improvement, that the most time-consuming habit is also time well-spent. Attacking popular culture, which is the underpinning of so much of our conventional wisdom, usually earns one the sobriquet of Puritan or crank. Praising popular culture, which few people can resist, can give any modern-day guru a temporary following.
The problem here is that pop culture is not a single, unitary thing. You can always find an appreciative audience by reaffirming its taste for certain entertainments. You can also find an appreciative audience by reaffirming its distaste for certain entertainments. There are a lot of people out there who hate or fear video games and reality TV shows — or, same thing, hate or fear the people who play and watch them — and Johnson is challenging their assumptions as surely as Rosen is flattering the cultural conservatives who read journals like The New Atlantis. Johnson, to his credit, has tried to take his message both to his natural supporters and to people outside his home turf.
Which leads us to foul number two:
Quacks are also notoriously disingenuous, altering their message to suit their audience. In his book, Johnson says, "The television shows and video games and movies that we'll look at in the coming pages are not, for the most part, Great Works of Art," later adding, "I want to be clear about one thing: The Sleeper Curve does not mean that Survivor will someday be viewed as our Heart of Darkness, or Finding Nemo our Moby Dick." But writing on his personal blog the week after his book was released, Johnson argued just that: "We don't have a lot of opportunities in culture to tell a story that lasts a hundred hours, but that's exactly what we're taking in on The Sopranos or Lost or Six Feet Under. I feel totally confident that those shows will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner." Like all good mountebanks, Johnson, aiming to please as broad an audience as possible, finds consistency a crutch.
Rosen apparently thinks it inconsistent to believe both that Survivor is not great art and that The Sopranos is. I trust the reader can see why this is not a contradiction.