In 2006, Steven Johnson came out with a unique little book called Everything Bad is Good for You. In this book, Johnson explores the possible positive repercussions of constant exposure to specific elements of popular culture, including gaming, reality TV, online experiences and film. His conclusion is that there might be powerful positive effects from these peculiarly self indulgent endeavors that include increased IQ, sensitivity to associational understanding and an ability to defer satisfaction to achieve long-term goals.

Counter intuitive, indeed. Fascinating, nonetheless.

When I was young, I did not often eat sweets or candy. My eyes were on a different prize. Before I could read, I was “reading” comic books. All my allowances and other monies went toward DC and later Marvel hero comic magazines. On Saturday mornings, I would walk, usually by myself, almost three miles to Winnetka, to the only comic book store in the region. In the 50s, a seven-year-old could wander miles in many suburbs with no concern.

Able to buy perhaps a third of the titles I adored, every week I was faced with a decision. With a quarter, I could buy two comics. Justice Leagues of America was my favorite followed by Superman, then Batman.

Occasionally, I caught wind of how despised my passion was outside the world of boys. Society had concluded that these rags were somehow unsafe and unsavory. We were encouraged to treat our comic books like trash. I was a closet worshipper of story. My closet was filled with sacred texts.

Before the age of ten, I was wrestling with the nature of time paradox, alternative universes, interstellar culture conflict and countless moral and ethical decisions concerning whom to save first during a multiple threat crisis. I was presented with ways to use images and words to tell a story, feeling challenged to find my own ways to do the same.

Comic books became integral to my thinking process as I both learned to walk a narrative time thread while observing the maps to other places that a picture implied. With a picture equal to a thousand words, comics were guiding to me millions. I doodled ceaselessly. Stories, like nearby Lake Michigan, lapped constantly against the beach of my conventional kid life.

It seems to concern parents today that so many of the obsessions of childhood are solitary events. That is changing. Whereas television and gaming have isolated while they’ve educated, children are graduating into multi-player, online communities and television shows that require feedback. Plotlines are becoming astonishingly convoluted. The tube has become literally a window to the world with reality show content generated by American subcultures and cultures far away. With the emergence of self-generated content on Youtube, we have the equivalent of kids composing their own comic books and displaying them for the world to see. I expect that combining words and pictures in video communications requires more access to personal resources than making comics. This medium demands that you be able to work with people.

One of the twists frequently used in comic book plotlines was that the necessary resource, tool or secret weapon was there all the time, introduced in disguise in the first few frames of the story. Despised indulgences of childhood are being revealed as exactly the right training for a future that will be needing skills not yet invented. I would like to see another book by Steven Johnson. Perhaps he could call it I See the Future in the Passions of Our Kids.


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