Many of us linked to Clay Shirky’s great talk at Web 2.0 last week, where he described the “cognitive surplus” bound up in millions of man-hours spent watching TV. We read it, and nodded, and grudgingly admitted he was right. I mean, he has a point.
I’m somewhat envious of Chris’ slightly more considered reaction:
“I’m a bit shocked at the general protestant work ethic undercurrents. It’s not a cognitive surplus; it’s a way of coping. The real question is why these people are creating Wikipedia when they could be sleeping instead. We’re processing hundreds, if not thousands of times more information per day than previous humans – how are we meant to make sense of it all if we have no downtime?”
Envious in that some days, I wish I had the balls to say “hang on a sec“.
Chris makes a good point. He also got me thinking a bit about the issue. And I think it’s important to note than when Shirky says “television“, he has a very particular meaning of that word. He’s describing a combination of the medium itself and a particular use of that medium.
Specifically: he’s describing consumption without choice. So to all of you fans of The Wire worrying that he implicated you, don’t worry.
To my mind, Shirky is describing the (depressingly commonplace) reality wherein the television is not something you turn on, but something that is on.
I was talking to Alex about how much TV we watch a week, and whilst we thought it was quite high – six to seven hours, tops – I pointed out that most of that is television we have actively chosen to watch. This week, it’ll be Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Pulling, Peep Show, and of course, The Apprentice. But that’s about it. We rarely ever turn the TV on “just because”, and if we do, it’s usually me doing it – and the first thing I reach for is the EPG. On top of that, we probably won’t even watch that all in real time, but PVR it to watch when’s more convenient.
We are very much in control of our television watching.
We are not the kind of customers TV companies would like us to be. These days, TV is designed to be sticky; something you consistently choose not to turn off. Trails, stings, picture-in-picture; all are designed to stop us “touching that dial”. For a network or station, there’s no difference between changing the channel or turning the box off. Everything’s designed to keep you there.
This is how it’s been for decades, and why, in houses around the world, the TV is a constant presence; once you’ve turned it on, it entices you to keep it on, and so rather than making a choice of next action… you keep watching.
(Incidentally: whilst TV has always been a medium of choice for me, radio is something I often listen to “just because”. Radio’s incredibly sticky… and yet it’s less obssessive about being sticky, I guess because the likelihood that you’re already doing at least one other task – driving, working – is high. Radio’s always been designed to multi-task).
The thing that I have in common with the Wikipedia editors, when I sit down to watch an episode of Doctor Who is that I’ve chosen to do so. Wikipedia won’t edit itself, and you can’t just do it passively; have to actively decide: “I am going to edit some Wikipedia“. The truth of the web – something we can’t say for TV – is that it’s easier than ever to switch from the passive mode (“I’m just browsing some Wikipedia“) to the active mode (“that’s a mistake; I should change it“) – and even back again (“ooh, that link looks interesting“). There’s no possible passivity in creation, but it’s possible to return to a more active state having created.
And so the world Shirky describes as preferable to the constant passivity of TV is not one of constant production, constant creation, but one where “passive” and “engaged” are two ends of a sliding scale – and that it’s the inner of that scale, not the edges, that is most commonly inhabited.
“…the thing that makes participation valuable is that someone’s there to read it.”
And the more I think about this, the more reductive I think it is to describe the TV/not-TV perspective as being one of choice/not-choice. Indeed, most of us fall into neither the “hardcore” all-choice category – constantly running things and editing pages and creating stuff – nor the “totally passive category”; rather, we hover around the middle, scaling up and down to either end. That’s something that’s often forgotten in all the 70-20-10 discussions, where someone invariably flashes a pyramid up in their slide deck: the thing that makes participation valuable is that someone’s there to read it.
The thing that makes being a ten-percenter worthwhile is the seventy percent.
And we’re not all ten-precenters, all of the time; the ten-percenters are going to stop creating for a moment, and become part of their audience. I think that’s something we lose track of in all the “culture of participation“: when do we stop to take in all the things we’re participating in? Chris put this well:
“how are we meant to make sense of it all if we have no downtime?”
I don’t think we can.
This isn’t all to say that Shirky’s point is invalid, or that he’s incorrect – far from it. More the thinking that there are subtleties contained within his talk – and the ideas it stands for – that need to be considered sooner rather than later, before we all start parroting the same lines in our own presentations. By exploring what we understand our own work ethic to be – and examining the choices of how we spend our time – we can make better judgment and make better consideration of how other people spend theirs.
“Only once you can automate the boring processes and provide free time do people have to worry about what to do with their free time.”
The other interesting thing that came out of my chat with Alex was the importance of remembering what the pre-industrial society looked like. Alex pointed out that the Victorians essentially invented the concept of “personality“. Prior to then, shaping one’s individuality was harder simply because there was less free time; the rural lifestyle shapes the individual around the seasons, the environment, the wider group. Only once you can automate the boring processes and provide free time do people have to worry about what to do with their free time. Gin filled that niche for people who really didn’t know what they wanted to be, let alone do. TV is the same: it was progress, and at the time of creation, there were fewer more compelling alternatives.
It’s only recently that the barrier to creativity/productivity has been lowered to the point that it’s a viable alternative to watching TV. Compare the number of people with blogs to the number of people who published zines thirty years ago – a big part of the barrier to making a zine is the amount of time necessary to assemble it, photocopy it, and distribute it. Now, anyone can throw up a website in an evening and potentially have more readers than many of those zines. Since the 1970s, creating-for-pleasure has become much easier, and it’s worth remembering that when we try to illustrate the diversity of alternatives to passive staring at the TV…