from gin to television

Clay Shirky’s great at explaining the importance of participatory and social media, and his recent talk at the Web 2.0 conference last month, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, is an excellent example – not to mention a good and inspiring read. Clay takes the fairly wellknown fact that as people are using the internet more they’re watching TV a little less, and talks about the immense waste of time of TV-watching as a cognitive surplus. He cites the argumment of a British historian that with urbanisation in the 19th century people didn’t know what to do with the “civic surplus” of so many people together, and basically just got drunk on gin for a generation – before figuring it out and building libraries, museums and schools for all children. Clay reckons that in the same way, we had no idea what to do with the twentieth century’s sudden increase of leisure time – and so we spent a generation (or two) wasting it by watching television. Now we’ve finally figured out better things to do with all that time.

Apart from the appeal of the general argument, the piece provides a good answer to all those questions about how people find the time to contribute to the Wikipedia, to blog, to make YouTube videos or lolcats or to play World of Warcraft. Clay describes having told a journalist about the time and effort put into the editing of a Wikipedia entry, and continues:

She [the journalist] heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

I guess I’ve used this answer before actually, but not quite so snappily…

28. May 2008 by Jill
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