Clay Shirky, author of the Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, has a fascinating post on his blog about the sheer amount of brain power invested in television and, in specific, the amount of time we spend watching advertisements. According to Shirky, Americans spend the same amount of brain power watching television advertisements every weekend as it took to create Wikipedia. All in all, Americans spend the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedia projects each year watching television. And all of this is because of a cognitive surplus caused by the increasingly ease of modern life.
Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost got off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now, I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. 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 is cuter.
Shirky likens the television watching in the post-Second World War era to the usage of gin to assuage the jarring experience of moving from largely agrarian societies to the industrial revolution during the 19th century, and makes a pretty convincing argument for it.
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing – there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders – a lot of things we like – didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
Shirky argues that, much like the civic surplus caused by the industrial revolution, the increased easiness of everyday activities, increased life expectancy, increased educational attainment and a variety of other factors, is causing a massive cognitive surplus that has been eaten up by television for the past 50 years. Now, however, new technologies like Wikis and blogs are allowing people to invest some of that cognitive surplus to create community structures that capitalize on it, much like the institutional structures created post-industrial revolution.
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.