Awakening from our Hangover

Shirky points out that the whole Wikipedia project took about 100 million man hours to complete. Yet the USA watches 100 million man hours of advertisements, every weekend.

A colleague of mine had a leaving party last weekend, so we all went out and got drunk. I spent most of Saturday in bed, and for the rest of the bank-holiday weekend I felt bad that I had squandered a day of my precious, finite life.

I was drinking cocktails and lager, but it is Magnus Linklater’s history lesson about Gin Lane that provides an excuse for me to link to Clay Shirky’s excellent speech on Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. Shirky’s thesis is that television did for the late 20th Century what gin did for the 18th Century – it masked the sudden and inconvenient “social surplus” that new technologies had brought:

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… 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… 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 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.

It is an important essay that is already being discussed online, so please do go and read the whole thing. Shirky goes onto describe how we actually have a vast amount of “cognitive surplus” – that is, spare thinking time – that is currently wasted watching TV sitcoms and adverts. He rails against those who ask “where do they find the time?” innorder to mock gamers and bloggers. Shirky points out that the whole Wikipedia project took about 100 million man hours to complete. Yet the USA watches 100 million man hours of advertisements, every weekend.

So perhaps society is behaving a bit like I was over the bank-holiday. Wasting time, horizontal, unwashed, in our pajamas, watching TV… when we should be doing something more creative. New technologies are slowly allowing us to unlock our potential.

4 thoughts on “Awakening from our Hangover”

  1. Is watching TV always a waste of time though, depending on what you watch it can be informative, educational, or make you laugh, all things that are beneficial in cognitive terms. TV often provides the subject matter, or the frame of reference, for dialogue about wider issues.

  2. Indeed. Shirky specifically singles out sitcoms, which presumably have less value in congnitive terms than, say, David Attenborough or Alan Yentob…

  3. Matt has a point, but TV-watching is also a very passive activity (not good in big doses), and in its constant quest for visual novelty, it actually reduces one’s powers of concentration. On top of this, because of how the mind works, it is also very prescriptive, and its influence on things like creativity, democracy, philosophy and social justice is not what one could really call benign.

    Informative and educational kind of count as the same thing though, Matt, and even though TV can be those things, I would say that while it poses as both, it is mostly a hollow promise at best, and at worst, it is downright dishonest. I’ve been on it, so I know. Where it’s true that tv provides a frame of reference for debate, that would be ok if it took the responsibilities that go with that kind of power seriously, and it would be ok if the people in charge of output were elected. But they are not, they are in thrall to the ratings game.

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