Television: the gin of the 20th century 

25 September 2008

I’m just starting to read what looks like a remarkable book, Here Comes Everybody, by internet analyst Clay Shirky. I was turned on to it by a friend who recommended I take a look at an article, based on a talk, Shirky wrote back in April, called Gin, Television and Social Surplus. Of course this may be old hat to you by now – I imagine everyone and their MySpace friends have written about this by now in their blogs and so on. But never mind: I suspect fewer people in this audience will have seen it and perhaps they ought to have a look.

Shirky begins the article by mentioning a British historian who argued that the critical technology for the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was in fact gin. Suddenly everyone was moving from the rural agricultural environment to the new cities, living dirty, restricted and often poverty-stricken lives in the shadows of the dark Satanic mills. The only thing society could do to cope was to drink itself into a stupor. That lasted for a generation, Shirky says, and it was only after that was over – when all those people together stopped being a crisis and became seen as an opportunity – that all the institutions we think of as coming with the Victorian era, such as public libraries and museums, broader education and wider suffrage came into being. Not a bad analysis in my view, and not one I’ve encountered before. I wonder who the historian was.

Shirky wonders what the equivalent of gin was for the 20th century and he has it in one – it was the sitcom. Following the Second World War, people for the first time (among other things) were working what we now think of as normal hours and five days a week. So they had something they never had before: free time. And we all spent much of that free time in front of the TV. For decades.

Until now, when we are waking up from so many years of TV-induced stupor. Shirky was talking to a TV producer interested in him appearing on her show, and he told her about how all of a sudden there was a huge amount of editing and discussion activity around the Wikipedia article about Pluto when it lost its planetary status. She asked, “Where do people find the time?” and Shirky suddenly twigged. “No-one who works in TV,” he replied, “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.” Wow.

He then goes on to work out the enormous size of that surplus. He reckons today’s (or rather, last April’s) Wikipedia as being the result of about 100 million hours of thought. But TV watching in the US runs at two hundred billion hours a year. Shirky spins that several different ways. It’s equivalent to 2,000 complete Wikipedia projects a year. The US population spends 100 million hours – a Wikipedia project’s worth – just watching the ads at week-ends. It’s almost mind-numbing.

The interesting thing about a surplus like this, Shirky points out, is that nobody knows what to do with it at first. So they get drunk on gin, or sitcoms. “It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something”, he notes, “that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.”

But that’s just the numeric part of the story. Shirky could imagine what that TV producer was thinking behind the “Where do they find the time?” comment. They had earlier talked about World of Warcraft and he had ‘seen’ her thinking, “Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves”. I encounter the same kind of feeling when I mention my interest in Second Life to people.

But, says Shirky, at least they’re doing something. “However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf,” he says, “I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann [from Gilligan’s Island] is cuter.” It’s better to do something, he maintains, than nothing.

The fact is that today people can do a lot of things themselves. They don’t have to be members of the audience. Most of it may be crap (I’ve talked about The Cult of the Amateur before) but most people can upload something to YouTube, write a blog, play WoW or co-create amazing stuff in Second Life. That’s something conventional media haven’t yet grasped, viz Michael Grade’s dislike of YouTube. They think it’s all about them producing and us consuming. But, Shirky notes, we are coming to think of media as a “triathlon”: “People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.” And if just 1% of world TV-watching time (people connected to the Net worldwide watch about 1 trillion hours a year) was spent producing and sharing… that’s another 100 Wikipedia projects a year equivalent.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite for the entire article. And if you read the whole piece, you’ll find out why it’s subtitled “Looking for the mouse”.

Shirky thinks all that cognitive surplus is going to be a big deal. One cannot help but agree. And meanwhile, today’s children won’t have to unlearn the habits of years watching sitcoms. So it’s an even bigger deal.

The world of media is changing. And it won’t be changing back.

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