Ever have one of those moments? You know, the ones where you read or see something that just simply closes a loop in your mind that you didn’t know was open? Where you (one hopes, figuratively) slap yourself on the face and say (one fervently hopes, subvocally): Wow, I wish I thought of that?
Had one of those today.
I’m a history of technology guy; I even alluded very briefly to that a couple of posts ago (featuring one of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite headlines, if I may be so unhumble to say so!).
So, I enjoy taking a global, macro view of technology, and how it shaped the story of civilization (technology = civilization — can’t have the latter without the former). And I also enjoy making connections.
So, my attention was captured today by the first paragraph of this post, found during typical stream-of-consciousness blogging today.
So, I read on, and the connections and insights about technology and where it’s taking us, and why it’s taking us there, were jaw-dropping.
See, I’ve often said (once, here) that one of the things I really like about this blogging mania obsession habit of mine is that after more than 15 years of consuming the Internet, now, in my infinitesimal, nanocorner of the ‘Sphere© way, I’m now contributing.
And, that’s the point:
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
By Clay Shirky on April 26, 2008 10:48 AM
I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.
If this analysis had stopped at that point, I would have been happy. Here I’m thinking that the industrial revolution automated the production of, and thus made affordable to the mass of potential consumers, the spirit called gin. Whereas, in the historian’s theory repeated here, gin was a response to the upheavals and surplus attention caused by the industrial revolution, and its wholesale abuse for that reason awoke society to the need to find more productive, or at least less destructive, down-time pursuits.
Okay, so far so good. Television?
Yes, but not just television in general: the sitcom.
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.
Interesting leap, don’t you think?
And that leads Mr. Shirky to the 21st Century. In the light of the surplus time the globe spends watching sitcoms, the collective effort to create Wikipedia is just a drop in the bucket.
So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought….
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Wikipedia (at the high value end). YouTube and 100zillion blogs (at the questionable value end). But, participating, not just consuming.
Contributing to the world’s knowledge, understanding, entertainment, relentless need to harness electrons.
Not just moldering.
[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus – Here Comes Everybody
I’ve attempted (with variable success) to avoid being one of those snobs: “Oh, I never watch (especially, commercial) television!”
But, for the most part (especially in the past year where this mania obsession habit called blogging has taken over my life), the television is off for all but a few, wind-down minutes at the end of most days (saving some football-season-related, and lately, due to the influence of my seven-year-old expatriate grandson’s Cubs mania, baseball exceptions).
I’m applying my cognitive surplus, in Mr. Shirky’s terminology, in a productive, rather than consumptive, manner, trivial as it is. And, trivial or not, it feels great!
A new motto for the masthead:
Left-Handed Complement– Contributing my cognitive surplus to meet the world’s relentless need to harness electrons, at the rate of one post daily.
Works for me. Thanks, Clay Shirky, for helping make sense of this mania obsession habit. And, in a larger sense, of making sense of Web 2.0 in a way that had eluded me until today. (And check out his book, “Here Comes Everybody“.)
It’s it for now. Thanks,
Note!: the link to Amazon.com used above are for the convenience of faithful reader and represents no commercial relationship whatsoever. Left-Handed Complement should be so fortunate as to ever collect remuneration of any kind for this endeavor, and in any event it’s against WordPress.com’s rules. I can link, so I link. It’s technology. It’s cool. It’s an artifact of Sequitur Service©. Deal with it.
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