Steven Berlin Johnson comes in for a vicious beating in The (impressively redesigned) New Republic this week. I'm reminded of the deep shock I felt reading Everything Bad Is Good for You in 2006: here was a grown man (who'd written a pop neuroscience book!) arguing, straight-faced, that the length of a linear process (e.g. a list of 'bring token A to container B' steps in a Zelda game) was a measure of something he called 'complexity' – which in his rendering was apparently the same as complication – and the dilettante 'critical' press was falling over itself to praise him. He really did want readers to think that the most important thing about trash like Survivor was that it required both basic strategy from its players and 'emotional intelligence' from its viewers…and that somehow this was connected to the number of scene changes in an episode of The Sopranos (irrespective of the ambivalence or emotional complexity of that show), and the Flynn Effect, and teaching kids to program…
It was flattering to the acolytes of my corner of academia (MIT Comparative Media Studies, Henry Jenkins's shop, which benefited hugely from the presence of old-guard literary scholars like Pete Donaldson and David Thorburn when initially forming up), and it was catnip to the same assholes who pay to see Malcolm Gladwell speak, but SBJohnson's book is a textbook example of driving a single semireasonable (and indeed very old and not terribly interesting) claim right off the cliff of wanting to be invited to conferences.
The hedgehog knows one big thing, but guys like Johnson (Shirky, Jarvis, de Landa, Benkler) make their career out of knowing one little thing – in fact they all seem to know the same little thing. (This might be giving Manuel de Landa too little credit. Then again, it might not.) Evgeny Morozov's essay (linked above) shines a harsh light on that one little thing; I recommend it. In particular, anyone who read Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites will recognize the elites-without-accountability effect Morozov claims to see in Occupy Wall Street:
One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media ... they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shot done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other ... you know what's worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can't ever be called to account.
I can't unreservedly recommend all of Morozov's articles for TNR (an ugly technophobia is obvious in his TED Books piece, for instance), but this one's worth reading.