journalist programmer Clay Shirky gave a powerfully thoughtful talk at Reilly's Web 2.0 conference last week: Gin, Television and Social Surplus.
In his relaxed, 16 minute talk, Shirky drew up upon the thoughts of a British historian who theorized that the most significant technology of the early industrial revolution was gin, because it allowed the population to dull the pain and fear that accompanied the switch from agrarian to industrial society; dull it long enough for them to make the switch and then wake up to take advantage of the riches industrialization brought them - public education, food, libraries etc.
What, he wondered, was the equivalent sophorophic technology lubricating our transformation into an informational technology? Sitcoms. Television. And now, he believes, we are finally waking up from a 50 year TV-induced stupor and begining to understand the possibilities opened up for us by this new, time and tool rich society we live in.
This is something that people in the media world don't understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race--consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you'll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.
Shirky recalls a TV producer doing a pre-interview with him on his book tour, and after he had discussed the way the Wikipedia community fought over the Pluto page, the TV producer made some comment like "Who has the time for all that?"
Clearly that ticked him off, because that comment led to his entire talk and a clearer understanding of what he calls the "cognitive surplus" we're now beginning to see and beginning to use.
So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. ...
... And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is...
I fear I'm not doing the talk justice in this hurried post. Watch the video, read a transcript of his talk here: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus - Here Comes Everybody
Watch the original video of his talk here.
Is he right? Is participatory media the start of a new age?