My perhaps a little too simply enthusiastic link to Clay Shirky’s recent talk garnered criticism from Mark Bernstein, who questioned the historical accuracy of Clay Shirky’s claims that the newly urban populations of the 19th century drank gin for a generation before managing to build libraries, schools and other civil structures, and from Melissa Gregg, who took umbrage with Clay Shirky’s dismissal of television as a energy-sucker as bad as gin. Today Axel Bruns provides a useful summary of much of the discussion around Clay Shirky’s post, complete with the context of cultural studies’ argument about television not being a passive medium, and he ends up with a conclusion that I agree with – and as the baby’s crying that’s all I have time to say. Sorry…

3 thoughts on “cognitive surplus take 2

  1. barry

    you’ve linked to Alex Havelais’ post there, Axel’s post is here: http://snurb.info/node/812

  2. Clay Shirky

    Hey Jill! Long time since we met at Liz Lawley’s place.

    Bernstein is simply misreading the historical record. There was a gin craze, and it was not a modulation of earlier patterns of consumption — it was a collective bender of historic proportions, *even using contemporary British consumption as a baseline.*

    Now there’s an argument to be had about whether the causes of that craze were in fact the historically sudden urbanization during the early industrial revolution. That’s my claim, but it’s not a slam dunk, to quote Tenet; its a debatable proposition. But that is a very different claim that the one Bernstein is making, namely that the gin craze was just a specious label for business as usual.

    (Also, the Axel Bruns link actually points to Alex’s post, not Bruns’.)

  3. Mark Bernstein

    Was the gin craze a significant response to urbanization? Were sitcoms a significant response to Shiky’s cognitive surplus?

    The pesky thing about the historical record is that it’s historical — and these arguments *both* appear to situate the alleged causes after their purported effects. Urbanization was a long process; the gin craze was a short fad. If you’re looking for the effects of the early industrial revolution, shouldn’t they be especially pronounced in the Midlands, in the Welsh mining towns? And I’m still very leary of relying too heavily on the frankly moralising literature of the early 18th century, which had every reason to exaggerate the drunken immorality of the urban poor and to contrast it with the upstanding plain puritanism of the industrious industrial elite. You see the very same literature in contemporary colonial America, which was not especially urban, and again in Jacksonian America, but we don’t think of either of those generations as amusing themselves to death.

    The pushcarts aren’t evidence: everything was sold in the street. And the manufacturing statistics aren’t good evidence either; we know about gin in 1730 (because it was new, and because it was manufactured) but we don’t know nearly as much about ale in 1730 or — and this is crucial — ale in 1330. But we do know that most of the calories in the winter diet in 1330 came from fermented grains; that should tell us something.

    I’m more worried about the 20th century, actually. Those sitcoms come right at The End Of History; by the time the sitcoms Shirky cites begin, the great conflicts of the century are pretty much over. National Socialism is a memory, Fascism has been ground into the dust, Communism is in full retreat. Sitcomms did not keep the wheels from falling off: not for six million, and not — more pertinently for the memory of the victims of early industrial urbanism — the unnumbered women dead who went crying their ancient call for bread — and for a pint or two.

    It’s a bad sign that so many people (including Jill, above) keep slidng the argument up a century, assuming the gin craze was a 19th century phenomenon. And it’s a bad sign that we casually suppose that the daughters of the gin-drinking urban poor built those libraries and museums and schools. Those a century laters and they were built by gentlemen who drank brandy and whiskey.

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