Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 31 January 2008

Everything bad is good for you?

Last weekend I read Steven Johnson's latest book, Everything Bad is Good for You. I had begun reading it in the departure lounge at London City airport a few days earlier, but felt a bit put off by the looks the paperback's bright pink cover got from tanked-up City traders and stag party skiers: perhaps they figured I was tucking into Belle de Jour or a Mills & Boon pulp romance. (The UK version is pinker - much pinker - than the picture looks above. Bad Penguin!)

Johnson is a prominent American technology journalist. Publishers describe his books as "culture", but - like his contemporaries Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki and to some extent others like Timothy Ferris, Matt Ridley and Mark Kurlansky - Johnson really spans lots of different non-fiction genres including science, history and psychology. The title of his last (excellent) book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software conveys a sense of his enthusiastic, entertaining and slightly breathless style of writing.

The basic gist of Everything Bad is Good for You, first published a couple of years ago, is a refutal of the culture vultures who insist that modern culture is going to the dogs - a downward spiral of dumbed-down TV programming, blandified music and repetitive and ultra-violent video games, about which the best to be said is that they improve hand-eye coordination of zombie-eyed teens with brains hollowed out of all moral sense.

Rubbish, says Johnson. And he sets out to show quite the opposite. Sure, there's plenty of crap out there he concedes, but the increasing sophistication of audiences for these things combined with enabling technologies like the Internet means that the best of what's produced today is much more complex and cognitively demanding that most of what we saw or heard 20 or 30 years ago. Video games are about developing and flexing heuristics for problem solving. The best TV dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire are more complex in character depth and multiple plot line than anything seen before, a genre that Johnson notes began with the cop drama Hill Street Blues less than 25 years ago. The best-selling series of games The Sims trumps Pacman and Pong. As a keen music fan, I can attest that for every Britney, it's now possible to find - courtesy of the iTunes Music store or podcasts like NPR All Songs Considered or KPunk (literally produced in some guy's bedroom) - plenty of good new tunes.

So what's this got to do with disarmament? Something of abiding interest to us is how multilateral practitioners do what they do. Reading some academic literature about negotiations one would think that all disarmament negotiators are cravat, tweed and monocle-wearing 19th century types operating in their own parallel bubble universe. There has been little real consideration of the impacts say of new technology on negotiation - and one only has to see the profusion of Blackberries and lately the proliferation of Apple iPhones, MacBooks and Sony Vaios in the conference room to appreciate that these people are deep in the currents of the contemporary age. Talking to them, it's clear they love these gadgets for the ways in which they empower their work - although, as French policy makers discovered last year, their IT security people aren't always impressed.

I wonder what the impact of all of this gush of information is going to have. Will it fertilize negotiating environments, or - like nitrate fertilizer run-off - gum things up and ultimately create sterility? It strikes me that multilateral practitioners don't necessarily need more information - their work is complex enough. Rather, they need better quality information, and better means to structure and manage it, in order to be more effective in their interactions. A key element of Johnson's argument is that with popular culture we can be more selective now: technology means we're not stuck with the crap - we can find and choose the good stuff. In theory. It remains to be seen whether we've gotten there yet on the informational side in diplomacy.

Something else Johnson wrote also struck a particular chord:

"The story of the last thirty years of popular culture is the story of rising complexity and increased cognitive demands .... Thanks to e-mail and the Web, we're reading text as much as ever, and we're writing more. But it is true that a specific, historically crucial kind of reading has grown less common in this society: sitting down with a three-hundred page book and following its argument or narrative without a great deal of distraction. We deal with text now in shorter bursts, following links across the Web, or sifting through a dozen e-mail messages. The breadth of information is wider in this world, and it is far more participatory.

"But there are certain types of experiences that cannot be readily conveyed in this more connective, abbreviated form. Complicated, sequential works of persuasion, where each premise builds on the previous one, and where an idea can take an entire chapter to develop, are not well suited to life on the computer screen... I can't imagine getting along without e-mail, and I derive great intellectual nourishment from posting to my weblog, but I would never attempt to convey the argument of this book in either of those forms."
Rising complexity and increased cognitive demands are also features of multilateral disarmament negotiation. And Johnson's point about the role of books is timely food for thought. A couple of colleagues and I are currently trying to complete a book looking at some aspects of negotiations building on work we've done on the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project. It's not easy ... but who knows, perhaps that bad process is good for us. What's the old saying - "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"?

John Borrie


Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You. London: Penguin: 2006.

We've written some on technology in negotiations. For instance, see Patricia Lewis's DI blog post on mobile technology in the conference chamber here.


Andy said...

Hill Street Blues still has a huge following today and it is in fact nearer to twenty seven years old.

Readers may be interested to know there is an active fans website and Egroup, both of which can be found from this link www.hillstreetblues.tv

Regards Andy

Piers said...

Interesting thoughts about too much information being bad for decision making processes. As the author knows well - this is a thread that runs throughout Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking". There are both advantages and disadvantages to making decisions based upon minimal information. There is no doubt that we can be smarter with how we deal with information in disarmament. As always, these blogs start you thinking...