I’m a few months late with this, but my across-the-street neighbor forwarded it to me just last week (h/t Del!), and I thought it was thought-provoking. In an essay called “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,” Clay Shirky writes about the parallels between the trauma induced by the Industrial Revolution in England in the eighteenth century, and the anxiety provoked by the surplus of time that fossil fuels, labor unions, and the Welfare State brought us in the mid- to late Twentieth Century in the West. In eighteenth-century Britain, he writes,
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.
He then goes on to argue that for the past 60 years, TV, like gin, has served as a pain-killing distraction for a few generations until people woke up and figured out what to do with the possibilities of this new era. It’s a provocative essay about the possibilities of Web 2.0 and other interactive media, and proposes that we’re on the cusp of taking advantage finally of “cognitive surplus.” He relates a conversation with a TV producer, who is attached to the Old Media model of We Produce/You Consume, and who was resistant to hearing his ideas about the possibilities of interactivity. About on-line gamers, she asks, “where do they find the time?” Of course they have the time, Shirky writes, because they’re not watching television!
So that’s the answer to the question, “Where do they find the time?” Or, rather, that’s the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: “Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.”
At least they’re doing something.
Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get 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.
Well, Historiann always had a thing for the Professor herself, but then he didn’t really have a lot of male competition on the island now, did he? (Mr. Howell? The Captain? Gilligan?) And, I sure spent long afternoons after school with my brother watching old episodes of Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, and then usually a M*A*S*H* re-run. And we both have advanced degrees!
I think he’s got an interesting argument, but here’s my question for you, dear readers: I’ve looked for books or articles about eighteenth-century England that makes the argument outlined above, and I can’t find it. It’s now been 17 years since I read intensively in British history, and my readings were more on the seventeenth-century, pre-industrial side of things rather than on the later end of the long eighteenth-century and the proto-industrial revolution side of things. Can you European historians help me out? I assume it would have been published in the 1970s or 1980s, given how old I think Shirky must be with all of those Gilligan’s Island references. I may have been casting my search net too narrowly, as it looks like cultural histories of gin and gin consumption are more of a 1990s and 2000s kind of thing. What book is Shirky thinking of? What do you think of his comparison of historical eras? Is he onto something, or is he all wet?