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April 26, 2008 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus — Clay Shirky on post-broadcast societal outlets.
posted by blasdelf (40 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She 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."

Fucking BURN.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:44 PM on April 26, 2008


Hey, thats right I have GIN in the freezer, thanks for reminding me.
posted by edgeways at 8:54 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is why I take Chew-Z.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cool.
Thanks, blasdelf.
I don't think that "sitcom = gin" is right, but this big jumble of ideas is a delight.
posted by bru at 9:07 PM on April 26, 2008


What do you see as the problem with the analogy, bru? I don't have the background in history of the early industrial revolution to know how accurate his portrayal is, but if he presents it fairly I can certainly see the line of thought that leads him there.
posted by Justinian at 9:13 PM on April 26, 2008


This idea that there is more free time (living longer, better educated, working less) and taking "hobbies" to semi-professional levels - this is a very real thing happening now that a lot of people are talking about and trying to figure out how to harness. Shirky though says producing is better than consuming and I disagree. He uses TV as the consuming example which is agreeable, but what if your consuming the complete works of Dickens (the sitcom of its age). Would that be worse than pretending to be an elf in the basement? I don't think so.

IMO, no matter what your doing - producing or consuming - it's merit and value should be based on how challenging it is. If your not challenging yourself, learning, expanding horizons, etc.. than it is arguably a waste of time.
posted by stbalbach at 9:26 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


What I wonder is, as peak oil winds its way through, and we either begin living in climate change hell or start consuming less, where is the cognitive deficit going to come out of? Will people give up the internet and go back to Gilligan's island? Or will they go all the way back to gin? ;)
posted by anthill at 9:47 PM on April 26, 2008


Sadly our most popular type of production seems not to be Wikis or anything as remotely useful, but YouTube videos and Myspace pages. Which, arguably, are even worse than Gilligan's Island.

But this is an interesting article, and I like the ideas he presents.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:14 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Myspace and Youtube are just the beginning. Also, Sturgeon's law will always apply.
posted by mecran01 at 10:25 PM on April 26, 2008 [4 favorites]


It's late and I've had a bit to drink, so I might be missing something subtle that makes this argument not obvious. We have a new technology that competes with TV, it's networked and open, therefore people start producing things with it. "Cognitive surplus" is just a nice little term to make the argument sound more clever than it is.

A better essay, along the same lines, is "Quitting the Paint Factory," a new "In Praise of Idleness." In it, Mark Slouka argues that maybe not working-so-fucking-much would be a good thing, even better than not watching TV. Slouka's argument is that work leaves us with not only with less time, but with less energy to think about things and contribute to the common good. So yes, we can find some minutes by not watching the contemporary version of "Gilligan's Island" and yes if we add those half hours times the number of people ignoring the hackneyed plots (and hackneyed example) we get an awesome number, but maybe the real fight is to make technology finally live up to its ostensible promise and do some work for us rather than making us work more.

It's easy to associate "cognitive surplus" with nothing but time, because that mathematic reckoning does not account for the energy needed to think. Can one really think carefully and deeply about anything with the trickle of time in the evening after a 40 - 50 hour work week, plus commuting, plus family? Can they? I know I can't. I know work burns me down hard.

Maybe teaching at ITP and running in those circles skews your view of things so that you no longer understand the dreadful weight of work. Maybe then a minute at nine PM is just like any other minute, but for many of us that's not a fresh minute, it's battered soggy minute. And when you fall back on the couch at that point, sometimes it takes all your cognitive surplus to just scan a program guide.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 11:05 PM on April 26, 2008 [13 favorites]


And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option.

Really? The only option? Couldn't just pick up a pen and paper back then?
posted by Arch_Stanton at 11:20 PM on April 26, 2008


You can watch Clay do this presentation from last week's Web 2.0 Expo.
posted by gen at 11:30 PM on April 26, 2008


Couldn't just pick up a pen and paper back then?

Yes, but Clay's focus is on the impact of the Internet on society, specifically the parts of the Internet where people work together or share strength (open source software, wikipedia, forums, etc.)
posted by gen at 11:37 PM on April 26, 2008


So all those Victorian amateur taxonomists -- the guys who first identified all that good stuff back in the gin-drinking days? Were they also using a cognitive surplus, or something else?

But this is an interesting article, and I like the ideas he presents.

I thought otherwise: I thought it was the typical output of a modern intellectual entrepeneur, desperate to identify new significance and trends where none really exist. It's the sort of selective reading the world that focuses on the stuff that fits his thesis, and completely ignores the mountains of stuff that falsifies it that I normally associate with women's magazines and Sunday newspaper style sections.

I did like his rip on the tv researcher though. I can't stand those people either.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:50 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Be self employeed for a while and see how much cognitive surplus you really have. When you are working for yourself and you don't make an effort to turn off you burn out. People are not desktop computers with spare cycles waiting for a SETI@home program to come along and replace The Simpsons.

I see things like Wikipedia and it makes me realize there is a lot of unemployed and underemployed people out there who are actively damaging themselves by spending their non-spare cycles on edit wars and blog posts when they could do something they could put on a resume. Unless you Clay Shirky or a web wunderkid blogging and protecting John McCain's dogs wikipedia entry won't really do it.
posted by srboisvert at 3:35 AM on April 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Bah, I've just wasted vital cognitive surplus on reading that muddy and ill thought out article... I could have been adding Indian Superman videos to my blog!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:14 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Cognitive surplus" is a fine spin! I like it! I don't know about gin, exactly, but otherwise there is something to this article.
posted by CCBC at 4:21 AM on April 27, 2008


Peter, the work done by the Victorian amateurs was made possible because they had the resources to be amateur taxonomists, but the number of people who had those resources was a tiny sliver of society. Most people didn't have access to the time, financial support or educational background to let them do any kind of amateur work. Now millions do.

Looking at things like Wikipedia and Linux and MeFi, I'm having a hard time figuring out how this change isn't significant, which seems to be your thesis.

(And Arch_Stanton, you could of course pick up pen and paper, or play with Legos, etc, but those kinds of activities didn't have anything like the participatory incentive of even lolcats.)
posted by cshirky at 4:42 AM on April 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


I think it's an interesting article but wrong in its key assumption -- and hence in its conclusions.

He seems to view blogging or editing Wikipedia articles as a class change in activity of the participant from consuming television. I'd argue that they are firmly in the same overall category: self-amusement. A more active and cognitively-engaged form of amusement, but amusement none the less. In other words, from the standpoint of the participant blogging/wiki-writing is to watching a sitcom as playing chess is to watching a sitcom. In no sense is it productive.

What's different is the externalities. A sitcom watcher creates promotional opportunities for advertisers and income opportunity for writers, actors and producers. A blogger creates -- what? Some information benefit for readers (however few), promotional opportunities for advertisers (if diffused), and income opportunities for people who provide Internet-access equipment and infrastructure.
posted by MattD at 5:54 AM on April 27, 2008


His premise seems to be that we're starting to see a shift away from pure mindless broadcast, and that's clear enough. However he undermines his point later on:

Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever.... "She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

This guy must not have been subjected to hours and hours of Dora. Because every few minutes, an arrow pointer comes out, glides suspiciously smoothly to an item of interest, and then the television makes a clicking noise and a beep (a weird anachronistic PC Squeaker beep that hasn't come out of a computer in better than 10 years, but TV people love to show off cluelessness I guess). Dora is television that mimics the appearance of interactivity; it's not unreasonable for a four year-old to wonder what's making it do that.

I don't know that the example of a kid puzzling over television designed to sell game product really supports his thesis that a wane in TV's popularity is analogous to a fundamental change in human productivity. Instead it seems like he's discovered the startling concept of the hobby, and is pointing out that people can now form groups to support a hobby.

I'd be prepared to consider his thesis again, but imitating a politician's presentation of examples that have nothing to do with the premise is pretty off-putting. Yes, I know Chewbacca is a wookie already, what's that got to do with the price of packets in Paraguay?
posted by majick at 6:25 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


This guy needs to read Marshall McLuhan and Georges Bataille. These ideas are not particularly new or novel, but he might be able to better understand how dangerous the surplus is, how likely it is to be invested in fanatical religious practice, random acts of aggression, risky sexual behavior, and violent and pointless revolution. Playing an elf in your basement, or typing out arguments in your easy chair, are significantly safer forms of surplus expenditure.

Hopefully, Shirky's argument is headed in the direction of political uses for the surplus: deliberation, town meetings, activism, civic engagement, adult education. If that's the case, then I'm mostly pleased with it, though that's also where you have to combat the tendency of most media to render its users passive and detached from their locality with flash mobs and instant improv and other means to get people out of their chairs. The fact that he doesn't get much beyong Wikipedia and edit wars in this talk is a little disheartening, though. Basically, life has it's own MetaTalk, and it's worthwhile to check out where the community makes its decisions, hang out, and make contributions.

That said, kingfisher's argument, above, that leisure time these days is predominantly needed to reproduce one's own capacity to labor strikes me as dead wrong: we habituate ourselves to certain forms of leisure, but we can find alternatives that expand our powers rather than simply recharging them. Anybody who trades television for a Bible study group knows this is true, but it's also possible to trade video games for union organizing or internet chat rooms for martial arts training. Early labor movements found time from their sixty-hour work week at the factory to read Marx and Engels: you're suggesting that programming a computer doesn't leave energy for piloting lessons, triathlon training, or playing in a band?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:01 AM on April 27, 2008


you're suggesting that programming a computer doesn't leave energy for piloting lessons, triathlon training, or playing in a band?

No, that it reduces that energy available for meaningful active work, but not that it does so absolutely. Hence, I have friends who have negotiated 4/3 workweeks because an extra day is not just eight hours more that you have for a project that you have, but also eight hours less on work that might have less appeal and importance to how you live. In other words, shifting one hour of leisure from passive reception to active work is nice, but shifting time from an alienated form of labor to meaningful active work is better. Because work comes at a cost that goes beyond time, physical and mental energy. After all, weren't those people reading Marx and Engels after a sixty hour week doing it in part because they were working a sixty hour week?
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2008


makes me realize there is a lot of unemployed and underemployed people out there who are actively damaging themselves by spending their non-spare cycles on edit wars and blog posts when they could do something they could put on a resume.

So fucking what? Obviously they don't value resume-building as much as you do. Not everyone is spending every waking minute trying to claw their way as high up the ladder as they can.

Sometimes people just like to chill out and enjoy themselves, and that's cool too.

And I really don't get the "damaging themselves". Could you elaborate?
posted by marble at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


I like how Clay Shirky himself commented and no one seemed to notice...welcome, I hope you can stick around.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:23 PM on April 27, 2008


And I really don't get the "damaging themselves". Could you elaborate?

Would you hire someone who said they spent the last three years doing a WoW guild blog and correcting wikipedia articles for anything other than say running a WoW guild blog and correcting wikipedia pages? I'd say that is pretty damaging

I was talking about non-spare cycles remember. People who have obviously turned their lives over to OreillyShirkyWeb and not just their free time. Shirky kids himself if he thinks wikipedia was built with people's throw away time. Thrown-away time sure but I suspect if you look at the bulk of contributers they come from people who contribute at a rate that isn't the equivalent to a half hour of friends and is more like a full time job. They've created value for sure. For others but not for themselves. It isn't like they were doing open source programming and honing a real skill.

They are just editing and arguing and getting all wound up to the point where they explode at each other and have to swear to make points
posted by srboisvert at 12:32 PM on April 27, 2008


I enjoy this community-drivel weblog.
posted by davemee at 12:41 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sorry! Driven. Driven, off course.
posted by davemee at 12:42 PM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Community drivel driven weblog.
posted by LordSludge at 1:19 PM on April 27, 2008


srboisvert:

I wouldn't hire anyone that didn't understand the impact of the Wiki. Computers are supposed to save us time, and to be able to live up to the promise, we have to understand the new tools. Someone that lives in blogs and wikis understand when to use them in an organization. They understand the value of "gardening" and reaching consensus. They understand that "EMAIL is EFAIL", in which a significant amount of the information in email is a complete waste of time and effort (most of the communications should be through other means). No, I would most certainly not hire someone who DOESN'T have experience with the new participatory culture, because they would waste everyone's time (from playing WoW or what-have-you) -- I would rather hire someone who is active on Wikipedia over someone that is intimately familiar with every American Idol singer.
posted by amuseDetachment at 1:40 PM on April 27, 2008


> I would rather hire someone who is active on Wikipedia over someone that is intimately familiar with every American Idol singer.

You make it sound as though those are mutually exclusive. They aren't; in fact, I think they're probably heavily correlated.

Somebody has to write all those exhaustive articles on American Idol, after all.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:49 PM on April 27, 2008


srboisvert: They've created value for sure. For others but not for themselves. It isn't like they were doing open source programming and honing a real skill.

That's your opinion, not fact.

Writing a well-researched and referenced article, a la wikipedia, is a real skill, just like programming is.
posted by gen at 4:15 PM on April 27, 2008


If I worked with someone who refused to communicate properly over email and instead used some web 2.0 style bollocks I would do everything in my power to get the fucker fired.
posted by Artw at 4:17 PM on April 27, 2008


...and if anyone thinks that OCD web research activities are going to be seen as any employment plus anytime soon then they're mental.
posted by Artw at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2008


What do you see as the problem with the analogy, bru? I don't have the background in history of the early industrial revolution to know how accurate his portrayal is, but if he presents it fairly I can certainly see the line of thought that leads him there.
posted by Justinian at 12:13 AM


First, I have a great admiration and respect for Clay Shirky and I find this whole concept of Social Surplus very original and interesting.

I just don't think that tv is a waste of time nor an "opium for the masses" as he seems to imply. I agree with him that the move from watching tv to participating on the Web is a positive one, and a giant one, but that doesn't mean that watching tv is being in a stupor.

I am not a psychologist nor a neurobiologist , but there are at least two basic positive effects of watching tv.

First, you may not participate in the story but you participate in the narrative: you accept a narrative, you watch it, you listen to it. Narratives are part of what makes us human and, somehow, watching stories makes us more human. How many stories with how many people are there during 3 hours of standard television?

Second, we are watching the same sitcoms (or news, or movies) as a lot of people. Tv weaves us into common narratives, common references, common cultures. For the past 50 years (60?), tv has tremendously accelerated the creation of common references that allow us to communicate.

In fact, tv has probably created the common grounds and common patterns that make us able to have conversations with strangers across the Internet today. Clay Shirky is right about the mouse, and he knows that it is an addition to the screen, not a replacement.
posted by bru at 5:34 PM on April 27, 2008


Previously on MetaFilter: organizing without organizations
posted by gen at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2008


Heh. Hiya, Clay!
posted by cortex at 6:54 PM on April 27, 2008


and if anyone thinks that OCD web research activities are going to be seen as any employment plus

I think people are saying that "worthwhile" and "increases my employability" are not the same thing. Lots of things are worthwhile that don't make you a slightly better cog for the machine.
posted by Justinian at 8:12 PM on April 27, 2008


I find it hard to believe that the endless consumption of internet information is any different from the endless consumption of Seinfeld information. I waste at least as much time these days doing stupid things online as people in the early 90s did with TV. I guess it's nice now that I get to comment, and people occasionally even read what I write ... though they often forget it again by the time they're writing their own comment.

We are absolutely not at the end of a collective bender. If anything, we're just making a special blend of gin for every person, which is a hell of a lot more enjoyable and addictive than whatever you get off some street cart.
posted by blacklite at 4:04 AM on April 28, 2008


Most people didn't have access to the time, financial support or educational background to let them do any kind of amateur work. Now millions do.

See, I'm pretty sure that back in those days, far more people had the ability to play a musical instrument than do today, so they actually were participating in the creation of the culture, rather than simply being passive consumers of it. And my sense is also that many more people read books than do today Not just the rich, but the working class as well. Look at phenomena like the Workers Educational Association, which provided working class people with the time and space to get together after a hard day's work down the pit or in the cotton mill, and discuss books and ideas -- and not just trivial pap, but genuinely difficult works of science, politics and philosophy.

More people might have the opportunity to pursue such ideas today, but I'm not at all convinced that more people are doing so.

I'm having a hard time figuring out how this change isn't significant, which seems to be your thesis.

I'm not saying it's not significant. I'm just not seeing anything in your article here that was really new or noteworthy, or that I haven't seen or heard before, basically.

I don't mean to rip on you, because intellectual work is hard, and writing is scary, and I think anyone who puts their ideas out there for public consumption deserves some sort of respect for getting the discussion going, but this felt like the output of someone who has had one successful and insightful foray into trendspotting, and is then obliged to follow it up with another because the success of the first means you've got a contract that has to be fulfilled.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:31 AM on April 28, 2008


I drink in front of the TV. Problem solved.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:52 PM on April 28, 2008


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