Clay Shirky: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

May 4, 2008

Here is a transcript of a talk that a friend and GBN member, Clay Shirky (a professor at the NYU ITP Program and author of Here Comes Everybody) gave last week at the Web 2.0 Expo.  It’s an elegant proposition:  that there exists a “cognitive surplus” — that automation has given us an enormous amount of free time, a fund of time and attention that’s not required by basic survival (work, family, housekeeping, etc.), to think and cogitate; that sitcoms and other light entertainment from the past century were a way of absorbing that surplus… but that society is beginning to “reinvest” that surplus.

In the talk, he compares Wikipedia, which represents the cumulation of about 100 million hours of human thought, to television watching, which absorbs about two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year… and draws some provocative conclusions:

And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

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.

And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we’ll do it less.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that  is 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

Well, the TV producer did not think this was going to be a big deal; she was not digging this line of thought. And her final question to me was essentially, “Isn’t this all just a fad?” You know, sort of the flagpole-sitting of the early early 21st century? It’s fun to go out and produce and share a little bit, but then people are going to eventually realize, “This isn’t as good as doing what I was doing before,” and settle down. And I made a spirited argument that no, this wasn’t the case, that this was in fact a big one-time shift, more analogous to the industrial revolution than to flagpole-sitting.

I was arguing that this isn’t the sort of thing society grows out of. It’s the sort of thing that society grows into. But I’m not sure she believed me, in part because she didn’t want to believe me, but also in part because I didn’t have the right story yet. And now I do.

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. 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.”

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

It’s also become my motto, when people ask me what we’re doing–and when I say “we” I mean the larger society trying to figure out how to deploy this cognitive surplus, but I also mean we, especially, the people in this room, the people who are working hammer and tongs at figuring out the next good idea. From now on, that’s what I’m going to tell them: We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I’m betting the answer is yes.


You can see Clay deliver it here.

(BTW, I highly recommend Here Comes Everybody.)

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