Clay Shirky and the “cognitive surplus”

by Mathew on April 27, 2008 · 6 comments

Clay Shirky, who teaches and speaks about “new media,” has posted the transcript of a speech he gave at the recent Web 2.0 conference, in which he talks about how TV as a whole is effectively a societal response to a surplus of leisure time — and how much better it would be if those excess brain cycles were used for something valuable, such as contributing to Wikipedia or other forms of “social media.” I really wish that Clay hadn’t written this particular speech. Why? Mostly because then there would still have been time for *me* to write it.

I must admit, the part about the gin never really occurred to me (go ahead and read the speech — I’ll wait). But the rest of it is right on track. Particularly the part where he describes the four-year-old looking behind the TV for the mouse. I’ve spoken to a number of groups about social media, and I always use my three daughters as examples: the oldest uses Facebook more than she watches TV, the middle one loves interactive fiction-writing sites like Gaia Online, and with the youngest it’s Club Penguin and Webkinz. To them, the most interesting kinds of media are interactive media.

Not surprisingly, more than one commenter among the dozens who have responded on BoingBoing’s post about Shirky (since his blog doesn’t have comments) argues that the author is guilty of social-media triumphalism, and that he is merely stating a preference for time-wasting with Wikipedia or Lolcatz as opposed to TV. One commenter says that his speech is like saying “now that we have Oranges no sane person is going to eat Apples, and anyone who grows Apples doesn’t understand how f’n juicy and delicious Oranges are… what a bunch of twits! amiright?”

This point has some truth to it. For every person who thinks that World of Warcraft builds leadership skills and watching TV is one step above drooling and whittling, there is another who thinks that CSI is gripping drama, and anyone on WoW is a brain-damaged geek living in his mom’s basement. There are plenty of ways for human beings to zone out and get very little accomplished — just look at golf, for example (or poker). But Shirky’s point is still a good one, I think: namely, that social or interactive media, however lame or goofy, has an added quality that sitting in front of a box does not. I’ll go along with that.

  • http://therestlessmind.wordpress.com Mark

    I’m not sure if there’s a cognitive surplus as much as a surplus of interaction, which simulates participation and creates a faux contrast to “consumption culture.” Shirky’s playing a narrative shell game by contrasting the Wikipedia to Gilligan’s Island. The real contrast is Gilligan and Facebook, which 20 years from now will be similar in context: I wasted my youth watching bad sitcoms=I wasted my youth biting people as a zombie. It’s easy to counter, I suppose, by saying FB is a social utility that “connects” people. But so did television. A lot of us didn’t sit alone: we connected, laughed at how awful the acting was on GI, and agreed that Mary Ann was much hotter than Ginger.

    I’m more fascinated with Shirky’s optimism that the grid will somehow rebuffer the cognitive sink rather than just automate our neurosis. The sitcom example is not the counter to the gin example. It’s an extension. In both cases we were finding a numbing alternative to the shock of the system: post-industrial London, post-War America. Today, all the grid does is automate the same instinct to avoid reality. Instead of bad sitcoms we tweet about our laundry, upload South Park clips, and constantly refresh our WordPress metrics to watch inbound visit volume.

    The grid isn’t changing how we think. It’s just changing how we think we think.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Hmmm… which is more “brain deadening” – watching “Cosmos” or editing the Wikipedia entry for “Friends”?

    Which is, of course, another way of saying that painting TV as if it were a kind of monolithic “opium of the people” is creating a straw man, just as much as claiming that using social media by necessity involves a more valuable use of your brain. I probably spend more time dealing with requests to install “Fun wall” than I do watching bad TV – is that, too, a valuable creative use of my time?

    The other half of Clay's straw man is the notion that TV isn't a social medium itself. While the medium itself is, of course, one way, it has inspired massive amounts of social activity along the way. That could be just “water cooler moments” talking about the previous night's hit show at work the next day. It could be the model of TV watching prior to the “TV in every room” era, where families watched – and talked about – TV as a social group. Or it could be more directly social uses of TV, such as programmes which have ties into real-world activities and encourage people to get out and do things.

    What Clay has done is basically pick the most moronic uses of TV and compared them to the best uses of social media – and surprise surprise, found TV wanting. I don't think that's social media triumphalism, but it's definitely creating a straw man designed to appeal to his audience – which is, of course, why his argument will gain a lot of popularity online.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a fair point, Mark — although I think you're being a little harsh when you say that interaction online “simulates participation.” And you are quite right that TV has produced a lot of social interaction as well, and arguably created communities.

    I don't know about Clay, but I don't think this is a binary thing where TV is all bad and the Web is all good, and social media has to replace traditional media — I think the one can extend and enhance the other. That's my hope, anyway.

  • http://www.en-dash.com/blog calamityjake

    I'm not sure I would go quite this far, but I think you're on the right track. Television is a passive medium, but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Even if you take Shirky's hypothesis as correct, he elides the many examples of online interaction spurred by TV. I'm not going to get too deep into it, but think of TelevisionWithoutPity or the recent Gossip Girls profile talking about the many internetty aspects of its fandom. Many bloggers (though not all) rely on traditional media to give them material to discuss, disdain, and disagree with–a shared cultural experience enriches our personal interactions.

    But I did like the speech–the anecdote about the little girl looking for the mouse was pretty persuasive. As Mathew says above, it's just not a black and white issue; the changes Shirky anticipates ARE coming, they just aren't going to spell the end of television (nor does Shirky suggest they will–only that they will take a bite out of the time we spend on TV).

  • http://therestlessmind.wordpress.com Mark

    Matt, I think I was being a bit harsh. I reread Clay's speech and noodled my thoughts in a slightly more textured post. Cheers.

  • http://therestlessmind.wordpress.com mark2one

    Matt, I think I was being a bit harsh. I reread Clay's speech and noodled my thoughts in a slightly more textured post. Cheers.

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