Clay Shirky, Gin, TV and Social Surplus

Clay Shirky teaches at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and recent wrote of Here Comes Everybody. He gave one of the most thought provoking speeches at last week’s Web 2.0 Expo – and the competition was tough.

The basic idea is that at times of great change, the human mind seeks escape. In the industrial revolution, it was gin that became the coping mechanism, with a whole generation seeking oblivion through drink. It was only after this that people began to turn the assets of industrialisation into something useful – from elected leaders to public libraries.

In the late 20th century, similarly dramatic changes were occurring and the narcotic of choice in those days was mindless TV. It was used to numb the pain of leisure hours that people weren’t used to having and frankly, didn’t know how to fill.

But as we enter the 21st Century, there are a lot more options and we’re used to the idea of leisure in our society. So we can turn this mindless and passive consumption into something active and positive. Clay calls this energy a “Social Surplus” and it allows mass social projects like the Wikipedia to develop.

To quantify this potential social surplus, the US alone spends 200 billion hours a year watching TV, or perhaps more shockingly and comprehensible, 100 million hours every weekend just watching the ads on TV. This could be used in thousands of constructive ways that we haven’t even begun to experiment with.

Take something as trivial as playing World of Warcraft, which might be perceived by many as “”Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.” But Clay’s point is that at least players are active, engaged and participating.

“However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann [of TV programme Gilligan’s Island] is cuter”

But if even a tiny part of the Social Surplus can be used for more creative works, ranging from blogging, to twittering, to photography to Wikipedia contributing (to name just a few), think what a radical effect this might have on society. So next time you’re tempted to kick back and watch the TV – just think if this is a remotely useful thing to be doing with your most valuable asset, your time. I last watched TV in 2006, by the way and then only rarely, so this isn’t a pot calling you black exercise.

I’ll leave the last word to Clay himself, in a nice little anecdote that I agree gives a glimpse into the future:

“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.”

So maybe passive consumption won’t even be on the menu in the media of the future.

If you’d like to read his lightly edited transcript, it’s here.

ā€”ā€“>Follow us on Twitter too: @russellbuckley and @caaarlo