TV, Cognitive Surplus, and Wikipedia

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.

Libraries and Denial

Over at Library Juice, Rory Litwin has started an interesting discussion about the mission of libraries today.  He begins:

I would like to propose that the current era in librarianship, which
is normally characterized as a “period of rapid change,” is perhaps
better described as a period of denial. It is a period in which
librarians are scurrying to disassociate themselves from their own
profession as it tends to be thought of, with a sense of desperate

What am I talking about? I’ll exaggerate a bit to make my point. I’m talking about librarians who say,

We’re not about books! We’re about computers! Don’t associate us with
books! We don’t want to be saddled with that! When people hear the word
“library,” we want them to think words like “Future,” “Hi Tech,”
“Information Age,” and “Shiny Gadget!” Fellow librarians, don’t even
use the word Book! It’s a no-no! Bad word! Hurts! Pretend you don’t
even know what one is!

Link: Librarian: Accept Yourself

Here in the Bay Area I just noticed that my local library is pushing a new campaign called Free2, which seems like a big effort to rebrand the library as pretty much anything but a place to borrow books (it’s a "21st century community center").  The blurb:

This campaign is designed to raise awareness of libraries in the Bay
Area (at least initially). It encourages you to visit more often,
whether that means stopping by your local branch to check out the
latest video game or accessing the online catalog or participating in a
program or activity.

It challenges stereotypes of dusty
bookshelves and shush-happy librarians. It promotes how libraries sit
in the heart of our communities. It recognizes that our libraries are
among our most revered public institutions. It honors their great
legacy of innovative partnerships. And it demonstrates an important
fact in the Digital Age — that our libraries are the number one point
of Internet access for millions without connectivity at home, school or

Indeed, the question is not whether libraries are
relevant today. But whether they can keep pace with the increased
demand for their services and materials. With your help, they can.

And if you can come up with a good slogan for the campaign you could win an iPod or a video camera!

To their credit, I did find some mention of books on the site.  The video on the front page is of library users saying what they like about their library — turns out some of them go there for books (who’d have thought?).

Humans United Against Robots

Humans United Against Robots (HUAR) is a tongue-in-cheek campaign "designed to educate and aware the citizenry of the
world of the impending attack that computers and robots will put into
effect against humans." 
I like the art, if not the grammar.

HUAR is apparently a side project of web comedians Keith and the Girl

I heard about it today when one of its members called in to an NPR Science Friday show about robots.

Tom Slee on Here Comes Everybody

I’m still making my way through Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.  So in lieu of my own review, I’ll point you to Tom Slee’s mixed review.  I also have mixed feelings about the book.  Shirky tells some great, convincing stories about the power of group organization through digital technology, like that of the protesters in Belarus whose use of mobile phones was crucial to their success.  But he also lapses into techno-fluff theorizing on topics like how the internet is changing the news media, where his ideas seem pretty shaky.

P.D. Smith on Scientists and Superweapons

Peter D. Smith, author of Doomsday Men, has a good article up at 3 Quarks Daily about mad scientists and related topics.  An excerpt:

The physicist [Freeman Dyson], who worked on weapons projects as well as the Project
Orion atomic spaceship in the 1950s, thinks there’s more than a grain
of truth in the Strangelove stereotype. "The mad scientist is not just
a figure of speech," says Dyson, "there really are such people, and
they love to play around with crazy schemes. Some of them may even be
dangerous, so one is not altogether wrong in being scared of such

Recently, I was powerfully reminded of Dyson’s comment while reviewing the reissue of Dan O’Neill’s classic nuclear history The Firecracker Boys
(1994). In 1958, physicist Edward Teller, the self-styled father of the
H-bomb, turned up in Juneau, Alaska, and held an impromptu news
conference. He was there to unveil Project Chariot, a plan to create a
deep-water harbour at Cape Thompson in northwest Alaska using
thermonuclear bombs. Seventy million cubic yards of earth would be
shifted instantly using nuclear explosions equivalent to 2.4 million
tons of TNT. That’s 40% of all the explosive energy expended in World
War II. Some firecracker.

Locals said they didn’t need a harbour. They also raised
understandable concerns about radioactivity. After all, the year
before, Nevil Shute had published On the Beach, one of the
best-selling of all nuclear fictions (four million copies by 1980), in
which the world dies a lingering death caused by fallout from a nuclear
war fought with cobalt bombs. Teller was unfazed by the criticisms.
That year he had defended atmospheric nuclear tests, claiming such
fallout was no more dangerous than “being an ounce overweight”. He
tried to reassure the Alaskans: “We have learned to use these powers
with safety”. He even promised them a harbour in the shape of a polar

Link: Someday this crazy world will have to end.

AI Panic!

AI Panic! is a smart and funny blog by AI researcher and PhD student Robin Baumgarten:

What’s AI Panic?

This site is dedicated to research and unveil the perils, imminence
and probabilities of a hostile takeover of the world through artificial
intelligence. I will stay on the lookout for you and post articles,
research papers and break-throughs of everything that could affect this

Who’s panicing?

Not me. Not yet, at least. And you probably shouldn’t, either. But staying alert and informed doesn’t hurt.


Britannica Online Free for Bloggers

Encyclopedia Britannica has made an interesting move with their online presence: they’re offering it free for all web publishers, including bloggers.  I learned about this at TechCrunch, which has a post detailing the program: Encyclopedia Britannica now free for bloggers.

Not only can bloggers access encyclopedia articles for free, their readers can access any article they link to.  For example, you should be able to read this entry on history of technology (you’ll see ugly ads, though; it’s ad-free when you sign in).

I signed up out of curiosity and because I’m unable to resist free books.  I can’t say I use encyclopedias much these days, but I do look at (and link to) Wikipedia more and more, and this will probably sway me to check out Britannica in such cases.

Their welcome email alerted me to the "Google Subscribed Links" program, which I hadn’t heard of before.  It tweaks Google to include results from "trusted providers" when you search.  That’s a good idea and will probably also get me checking out Britannica more often, since I won’t have to go directly to their site to search.

Indra Sinha: Animal’s People

Animal’s People by Indra Sinha is set among survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal.  Sinha writes on his blog that it "is a story about poor people coping with tragedy and injustice. The book could have been set anywhere where the chemical industry has destroyed people’s lives. I had considered calling the city Receio and setting it in Brazil. It could just as easily have been set in central or south America, west Africa or the Philippines.  In the end it was Khaufpur and India."

Animal’s People recently won the Commonwealth writer’s prize and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker.

Link: Indra Sinha’s website and blog.

I learned of Sinha through an older book of his called The Cybergypsies (available in a new edition at Amazon UK).  I picked it up in Italy to read on the flight home.  It’s a novelistic retelling of early pre-web life on the net in the late 80s and 90s.  Sinha was an active member of these addictive online communities, explored through means of dial-up BBS’s and text-based roleplaying adventures.  Sinha tells of infiltrating a hacker board and other adventurers with activists, roleplayers, and other online pioneers that he calls cybergypsies.  It’s absorbing and strange reading.Cybergypsies