It is a truth nearly universally acknowledged that pop culture caters to our base instincts; mass society dumbs down and simplifies; it races to the bottom. The rare flowerings of "quality programming" only serve to remind us of the overall downward slide. But no mater how many times this refrain is belted out, it doesn't get any more accurate. As we've seen, precisely the opposite seems to be happening: the secular trend is toward greater cognitive demands, more depth, more participation. If you accept that premise, you're forced then to answer the question: Why?
For decades, the race to the bottom served as kind of a Third Law of Thermodynamics for mass society: all other things being equal, pop culture will decline into simpler forms. But if entropy turns out not to govern the world of mass society - if our entertainment is getting smarter after all - we need a new model to explain the trend. That model is a complex, layered one. The forces driving the Sleeper Curve straddle three different realms of experience: the economic, the technological, and the neurological. Part of the Sleeper Curve reflects changes in the market forces that shape popular entertainment; part emanates from long-term technological trends; and part stems from deep-seated appetites in the human brain.
The Sleeper Curve is partly powered by the force of repetition. Over the past 20 years, a fundamental shift has transformed the economics of popular entertainment: original runs are now less lucrative than repeats. In the old days of television and Hollywood, the payday came from your initial airing on network or your first run at the box office. The aftermarkets for content were marginal at best. But the mass adoption of the VCR, and cable television's hunger for syndicated programming, has turned that equation on its head. In 2003, for the first time, Hollywood made more money from DVD sales that it did from box-office receipts. Television shows repurposed as DVDs generated more than a billion dollars in sales during the same period. And the financial rewards of syndication are astronomical: shows like The Simpsons and The West Wing did well for their creators in their initial airings on network television, but the real bonanza came from their afterlife as reruns.
How do the economics of repetition connect to the Sleeper Curve? The virtue of syndication or DVD sales doesn't lie in the financial reward itself, but in the selection criteria that the reward creates in the larger entertainment ecosystem. If the ultimate goal stops being about capturing an audience's attention once, and becomes more about keeping their attention through repeat viewings, that shift is bound to have an effect on the content. Television syndication means pretty much one thing: the average fan might easily see a given episode five or 10 times, instead of the one or two viewings that you would have expected in the Big Three era. Shows that prosper in syndication do so because they can sustain five viewings without becoming tedious. And sustaining five viewings means adding complexity, not subtracting it. Reruns are generally associated with the dumbing down of popular culture, when, in fact, they're responsible for making the culture smarter.
To appreciate the magnitude of the shift, you need only rewind the tape to the late seventies and contemplate the governing principle that reigned over prime-time programming in the dark ages of Joanie Loves Chachi — a philosophy dubbed the theory of "Least Objectionable Programming" by NBC executive Paul Klein. LOP is a pure-breed race-to-the-bottom model: you create shows designed on the scale of minutes and seconds, with the fear that the slightest challenge — "thought," say, or "education" — will send the audience scurrying to the other networks.
Contrast LOP with the model followed by The Sopranos —é what you might call the Most Repeatable Programming model. MRP shows are designed on the scale of years, not seconds. The most successful programs in the MRP model are the ones you still want to watch three years after they originally aired, even though you've already seen them three times. The MRP model cultivates nuance and depth; it welcomes "tricks" like backward episodes and dense allusions to Hollywood movies.
The transformation of video games — from arcade titles designed for a burst of action in a clamorous environment, to contemplative products that reward patience and intense study — provides the most dramatic case study in the power of repetition. The titles that lie at the top of the all-time game bestseller lists are almost exclusively games that can literally be played forever without growing stale: games like Age of Empires, The Sims, or Grand Theft Auto that have no fixed narrative path, and thus reward repeat play with an ever-changing complexity; sports simulations that allow you to replay entire seasons with new team rosters, or create imaginary leagues from different eras. Titles with definitive endings have less value in the gaming economy; the more open-ended and repeatable, the more likely it is the game that will be a breakout hit.
Technological innovation, of course, has contributed mightily to the Sleeper Curve. To begin with, most of the media technologies introduced over the past 30 years have been, in effect, repetition engines: tools designed to let you rewind, replay, repeat. It seems amazing to think of it now, but just 30 years ago, television viewers tuning in for All in the Family or M*A*S*H had almost no recourse available to them if they wanted to watch a scene again, or catch a bit of dialogue they missed. If you wanted to watch the "Chuckles the Clown" episode of Mary Tyler Moore again, you had to wait six months, until CBS reran it during the summer doldrums — and then five years before it started cycling in syndication.
Since those days, the options for slowing down or reversing time have proliferated: first the VCR; then the explosion of cable channels, running dozens of shows in syndication at any given moment; then DVDs 15 years later; then TiVo; and now "on demand" cable channels that allow viewers to select programs directly from a menu of options — as well as pause and rewind them. Viewers now curate their own private collections of classic shows, their DVD cases lining living-room shelves like so many triple-decker novels. The supplementary information often packaged with these DVDs adds to their repetition potential.
These proliferating new recording technologies are often described as technologies of convenience, but the technology has another laudable side effect: it facilitates close readings. As technologies of repetition allowed new levels of complexity to flourish, the rise of the Internet gave that complexity a new venue where it can be dissected, critiqued, rehashed, and explained. Even a modestly popular show — like HBO's critically acclaimed drama Six Feet Under — has spawned hundreds of fan sites and discussion forums, where each episode is scrutinized and annotated with an intensity usually reserved for Talmudic scholars. The fan sites create a public display of passion for the show, which nervous Hollywood execs sometimes use to justify renewing a show that might otherwise be cancelled due to mediocre ratings. Shows like Arrested Development and Alias survive for multiple seasons thanks in part to the enthusiasm of their smaller audiences — not to mention the fans' willingness to buy DVD versions en masse when they're eventually released.
The new possibilities for meta-commentary are best displayed in game walk-throughs: those fantastically detailed descriptions that "walk" the reader "through" the environment of a video game, usually outlining the most effective strategies for completing the game's primary objectives. Hundreds of these documents exist online, almost all of them created by ordinary players, assembling tips and techniques from friends and game discussion boards. If you have your doubts about the spatio-logical complexity of today's video games and don't have the time to sit down and play one yourself, I recommend downloading one of these walk-throughs from the Web and scrolling through it just to gauge the scale and intricacy of these gameworlds.
Pop culture's race to the top over the past decades forces us to rethink our assumptions about the base tendencies of mass society. Almost every Chicken Little story about the declining standards of pop culture contains a buried blame-the-victim message: Junk culture thrives because people are naturally drawn to simple, childish pleasures. Children zone out in front of their TV shows or their video games because the mind seeks out mindlessness. This is the Slacker theory of brain function: the human brain desires above all else that the external world refrain from making it do too much work. Given their druthers, our brains would prefer to luxuriate among idle fantasies and mild amusements. And so, never being one to refuse a base appetite, the culture industry obliges. The result is a society where maturity, in Andrew Solomon's words, is a "process of mental atrophy."
Think about it this way: if our brain really desired to atrophy in front of mindless entertainment, then the story of the last 30 years of video games — from Pong to The Sims — would be the story of games that grew increasingly simple over time. You'd never need a guidebook or a walk-through; you'd just fly through the world, a demigod untroubled by challenge and complexity. Game designers would furiously compete to come out with the simplest titles; every virtual space would usher you to the path of least resistance. Of course, exactly the opposite has occurred. The games have gotten more challenging at an astonishing rate: from PacMan's single page of patterns to Grand Theft Auto III's 53,000-word walk-through in a mere two decades. The games are growing more challenging because there's an economic incentive to make them more challenging — and that economic incentive exists because our brains like to be challenged.
Copyright © 2006 by Steven Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.