This past weekend Clay Shirky posted a transcript of a talk he gave called Gin, Television, and Social Surplus that’s been getting a lot of links around the blogosphere. Following on themes from his book, Here Comes Everybody, he tells a story that goes like this: We gained lots of free time (a “cognitive surplus”) in the 40s and 50s because of shorter workweeks. We squandered the surplus by watching TV sitcoms and the like. Now we’re finally waking up from this “collective bender” and putting our energies into better things, like editing Wikipedia.
I have a number of problems with this story. First of all, did we gain free time in the 40s and 50s? I’m not an expert, but what I’ve read about work life has said that Americans are working more hours now than they did at the beginning of the 20th century, not less.
Second, is the time now spent editing Wikipedia or doing other things online really coming from time formerly spent watching TV? In other words, even if there’s a negative correlation between TV viewing and online activity, correlation doesn’t imply causality.
Third, who’s to say which of these activities is more valuable? Shirky has a couple of fairly simple rules for assigning value. Producing is better than consuming — so writing a blog or posting to a mailing list is better than watching TV or reading. Activity is better than inactivity or passivity — playing World of Warcraft is more valuable than watching a movie.
I think those rules are awfully simplistic and don’t seem to get at the heart of what’s valuable. Some TV shows and movies are far more sophisticated works of art than are most video games. Reading a book can be a much more efficient way to deepen one’s understanding of a topic than debating it online. Even an adolescence wasted watching Gilligan’s Island (an example of Shirky’s) might reward you later with the creative juice to launch a career writing postmodern novels.
It’s wishful thinking to believe that all of these new technologies will bring forth some great creative and intellectual bounty. We’ve already got hundreds of millions of blogs — how much have they really changed things? How important is Wikipedia, really? If it disappeared tomorrow would anyone be truly inconvenienced? I doubt it — Google would turn up another source or you’d go look in the library if it really mattered. Yet think of all the energy and hours that have been put into Wikipedia. The return on investment just doesn’t seem that impressive.