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…

5 thoughts on “from gin to television

  1. Mark Bernstein

    A while back, I wondered ( is this argument is actually entirely sound, or if it just sounds good.

    “Sure, there were gin pushcarts. There were pushcarts for cherries and mackerel and matches and milk, for knife grinding and chair mending. Shops were for rich folk; small businessmen went from door to door. This wasn’t new: Gibbons set The Cryes of London for five voices and viols before 1625, and he wasn’t alone. This was true almost to living memory; Eliza Doolittle sells flowers on the steps of Covent Garden and her ambition is to someday, somehow, be employed in a flower shop.”

  2. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Hm. It might indeed be an argument that just sounds good – I don’t know much about the history of the period – or of gin, and your post is interesting. But regardless of that, the basic points Shirky makes are interesting.

  3. MC

    Wow Jill, I’m surprised by your take on this. Shirky’s talk makes *me* want to reach for the gin! Is it really necessary that he dismisses the leisure pursuits of entire generations to explain why web 2.0 is important? He shows complete ignorance of the history of media studies scholarship which repeatedly argued against the notion of a passive audience… and what about the generations of workers at all levels of the TV industry who produced shows that ultimately made many people very happy? I don’t think he’s going to win many friends in so-called old media with this approach.

  4. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Melissa, I didn’t read Shirky as saying “television is evil” so much as his answering the question that I’ve certainly been asked many, many times, about how people can have the time to blog. Or do anything else creative, actually. I probably glossed over other bits of his argument in my reading.

    As for the “television viewers are actually not passive at all” argument, I know this is media studies gospel, and it’s a lovely empowering argument that allows us to see the many ways in which audiences actually don’t just sit back and take it silently – but television’s also a media that forces activity outside of itself. Sure, we talk about shows, kids reenact and develop tv favourites with their dolls, with role-playing and with drawings, a few adults write fan fiction – but television itself rarely opens up to these things. And sure, some television is wonderful, mind-expanding – but a lot of it is crap. Just like the blogosphere, for that matter.

    Web 2.0 is obviously different in that the “talking back” is built into the medium, and becomes visible on a far greater scale. While much of the “activity” of the television audience is metaphorical and/or hidden, it’s literal and visible online.

    Though of course it’s entirely possible to mindlessly surf the internet and NOT contribute or create anything, just as we mindlessly zone out to television or newspapers or novels at other times.

  5. Clay Shirky

    MC writes: “I donít think heís going to win many friends in so-called old media with this approach.”

    Uh no, I imagine I won’t. Oh well.

    As for “complete ignorance of the history of media studies scholarship”, well, if only that were true. I was in Stuart Ewen’s Media Studies Department in the 90s, and now work at NYU, where that line of inquiry has a home in both Performance Studies and Culture and Communications, so I am well acquainted with the argument. I simply disagree with it, not in it’s basic and tautological form — TV leaves considerable sense-making in the hands of the viewer — but in its “…and therefore TV is an active medium” conclusion.

    Jill posts for me: “televisionís also a media that forces activity outside of itself.” TV is passive in some important, medium-specific way, and, critically, in some way that much of the media on the net isn’t, in just they way Jill says. If you don’t like the way I framed that difference, use your own language instead, but denying that such a difference exists is simply daft.

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