By STEVEN JOHNSON
The Sleeper Curve
SCIENTIST A: Has he asked for anything special?
SCIENTIST B: Yes, this morning for breakfast . . . he requested something called ''wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.'' SCIENTIST A: Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties. SCIENTIST B: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or . . . hot fudge? SCIENTIST A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.
— From Woody Allen's ''Sleeper''
n Jan. 24, the Fox network showed an episode of its hit drama ''24,'' the real-time thriller known for its cliffhanger tension and often- gruesome violence. Over the preceding weeks, a number of public controversies had erupted around ''24,'' mostly focused on its portrait of Muslim terrorists and its penchant for torture scenes. The episode that was shown on the 24th only fanned the flames higher: in one scene, a terrorist enlists a hit man to kill his child for not fully supporting the jihadist cause; in another scene, the secretary of defense authorizes the torture of his son to uncover evidence of a terrorist plot.
But the explicit violence and the post-9/11 terrorist anxiety are not the only elements of ''24'' that would have been unthinkable on prime-time network television 20 years ago. Alongside the notable change in content lies an equally notable change in form. During its 44 minutes -- a real-time hour, minus 16 minutes for commercials -- the episode connects the lives of 21 distinct characters, each with a clearly defined ''story arc,'' as the Hollywood jargon has it: a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Nine primary narrative threads wind their way through those 44 minutes, each drawing extensively upon events and information revealed in earlier episodes. Draw a map of all those intersecting plots and personalities, and you get structure that -- where formal complexity is concerned -- more closely resembles ''Middlemarch'' than a hit TV drama of years past like ''Bonanza.''
For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.
I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today's media. Instead, you hear dire tales of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. It's assumed that shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years -- if not 500 -- is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied.
The usual counterargument here is that what media have lost in moral clarity, they have gained in realism. The real world doesn't...