Gin Lane, Gilligan's Island, and timewasting in the modern era

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?

0 thoughts on “Gin Lane, Gilligan's Island, and timewasting in the modern era

  1. I kind of think he’s all wet, given that Europeans had been subsisting on alcoholic drinks (ale, beer, cider) for many generations before the gin craze. Industrial workers in slums may have drank gin, but god knows peasants on farms put away a lot of ale and beer. I haven’t researched this at all, so this is pure speculation, but I’d bet the gin craze was more a result of technology/economics/possibly fashion, rather than some deep societal existential crisis. (This is also what I’ve read elsewhere on the web, though I can’t remember now to save my life who made the argument.)


  2. I prefer to de-link/delist from both old and new media (save for Historiann, of course!), but that’s just me. On the argument in question, I think it compresses a whole lot of processes and phenomena into a pretty tight framework for the sake of interpretive “punch” (or some other kind of elixir). Were people really more disoriented in the London that was rebuilt after the great fire than in Shakespeare’s London, whether by the pace or the scale? Is London the measure of “urban?” Could moving from the back end of Sherwood Forest into some mid-size county market town have been proportionately more disarranging than the step-up from Bristol to London on Bailyn’s famous pathway toward Virginia? What about change in the other direction? Waking up in a depopulated rotten borough and discovering that everyone else in their right mind has long since decamped for some nice nearby town? That could make you want to hit the cider barrel. I think this one would get shredded on an oral comps exam. I sounds like the kind of saleable insight that gets books reviewed in the Sunday NYT, however: how cedar saved civilization.

    How any of it inflects with Dungeons and Dragons is beyond me.


  3. I can’t comment on 17th-century England, though I think New Kid’s point — that the appeal of alcohol is eternal — makes a lot of sense. I’m more interested in the observation that TV and other passive media may be increasingly obsolete. I’m not sure what to think about that — on the one hand, it plugs in to a lot of my experiences /friends /local arts culture /burning man background: the ideal of participation over consumption. There is something highly idealistic, and deeply appealing, about the notion of accessibility and participation — it’s one of the reasons I joined the circus. Still, I also wonder how far these ideals reach into the broader society? Has computer gaming and sim culture really reached a majority of the population, or is it about to? Are masses of people on the verge of inventing their own entertainments creatively and emergently, or is this still a subculture? Much as I’d love to see the demise of TV’s dominance, I’m not fully convinced that it’s stranglehold on our imagination is really loosening.


  4. Hi all–I agree that drinking wasn’t new in the eighteenth-century, but what was new was the popularity of distilled spirits made possible by the Atlantic World trade–rum, gin, and later in the early national U.S., whiskey and “corn likker.” This stuff is very different from drinking hard cider or “small beer” all day long, because being a little buzzed is preferable to the risk of dysentery and giardia from drinking water. And there is a lot of research that suggests that pathological drinking–drinking to incapacity–increased in the eighteenth century in Britian, and in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in the U.S. I’m just not sure about the timing here–Hogarth’s famous “Gin Lane” was produced in 1750–which seems to me a little early for people to be suffering from the stresses of the industrial revolution, even in Britain.


  5. Agreed. I’m only problematizing the various periodicities of social disruption, consciousness-altering response, and technology. The ref. to Hogarth, though, puts me in mind of the pissing dogs of Revolutionary-era Anglo/America and makes me wonder if even bigger game is afoot here?

    On Squad’s point about “sim culture,” it’s worth observing that big institutional bets are being placed on often uninterrogated assumptions about these kinds of things. A colleague of mine has gotten a huge internal grant that would have put many shelf-feet of books into our starved library to set up a Second Life Island for departmental pedagogical practice on the purport that this will better connect to the cognitive “processing habits” and “learning styles” of the students. Nobody’s asked the students about this, but it’s cool, though. Then again, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” is our university-wide freshman common reader for the coming year, so at least we’re building on strength!


  6. Just to toss something out there…

    If TV is the new soporific [being replaced by the Internet], why are there still sooooo many people in love with their nightly [hourly???] drinkies?

    Is there extra extra surplus time around? Or are there just more options? Some drink. Some watch TV. Some use the Internet. *MANY* do all 3 at once.


  7. Great question! Now THAT is some serious multi-tasking, The_Myth! I think I can manage to drink and watch TV, but I don’t know about drunken blogging…that sounds too much like work.

    And I know I can’t watch TV and blog–I’m one of those people who was mystified by how my friends could listen to music and watch TV and claim to be “studying” in college.


  8. Television substitutes directly for drinking. It is a great way to turn off your brain while avoiding a hangover (and immediate work)and a necessity when taking call when you do not want to fret about the work you might have to do but can’t drink for that very reason. Many a time I have found myself flipping mindlessly through channels saying to myself “I am doing this to avoid doing or thinking about anything else and if it wasn’t this I would have a drink in my hand”. Sorry for that depressing mental image. Interactive stuff on the internet or computer is not nearly passive enough to fill the same purpose.


  9. I’m just lost on the issue of why it’s better to sit in your basement pretending you’re an elf than to “interact” with Mary Anne or Ginger. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t pretended I’m an elf for a good long time …

    But I do think he should tell us why.


  10. Well, playing elf isn’t my cup of corn likker either–but I think his argument is that people who are using interactive media are using their brains and doing something creative, rather than sitting back (like Fratguy when he’s on call) and letting the media tell you what to look at, what to think about, etc. If people are going to spend 5 hours of their leisure time per day on “screen time,” then it might as well be (in his opinion) writing a blog, contributing to a wiki, or doing something else to generate content, not just consume it.

    I think it’s an interesting point–although at some point we do need to start making distinctions about quality. (Writing hugely popular and yet also erudite blogs about academia? Pretending to be an elf in World of Warcraft? Which represents a denser use of a “cognative surplus?)

    Now, the question I have is: where would the internet and web 2.0 be without that 60 years of television watching in our collective memories? So much of what’s on the web is about or derived from American TV, so perhaps the division Shirky wants us to see is less clear. Where would we be without TV-derived, internet expressions like “jump the shark?” That expression alone is worth enduring all of those years of Happy Days. And we all know what Shirky means exactly when he asks, “Mary Ann or Ginger?”

    And Fratguy–you make an excellent point about the similarities between TV and alcohol, although I might suggest that while they may serve a similar function for you, there might be a closer connection between TV and pot. After all, no one gets angry and fired up to beat up someone else or to rape someone just from watching TV. (At least, no one who wouldn’t get that way faster if he were drinking!) And pot-smokers just giggle a lot and fall asleep early. (Well, that’s the effect that TV has on me, anyway.)


  11. Historiann, I think the chronology is all wrong. The whole gin craze to which the writer refers is early 18th c, and the industrial revolution isn’t until later — the impact of it not until early 19th c. at least. I’d check stuff from Deborah Valenze on that. I will go downstairs, make myself a gin & tonic, and ask my helpful 18th century historian, but I don’t think the link between the gin craze & industrialization holds up. (Also, of course, what NK and Magico say about alcohol earlier.)


  12. btw, I would probably challenge the “interactiveness” of WoW in any event.

    I think most would be shocked at how many gamers approach it just like it is TV, despite the myth of telepresence among players-en-scene.

    All myths have a bit of “truth” [in its empirical sense] to them, but in the end it’s the story they tell that makes them real.

    I have a background in media studies, with an emphasis on the social function of media, and I am dis-enamored with the rah-rah mentality of most “new media” scholarship, which I think often misses some huge elephants in the [chat]room…


  13. Amazing how a little alcohol can clear the brain. But just to add to my earlier comment: I think the explanation for the gin craze could go to early urbanization (the growth of London) and the enormous poverty there. Also there were particular social policies: for a while, gin was not subject to any excise taxes, so it was cheap.
    But not industrialization.


  14. A-HA! As I suspected. My British history expert has weighed in. I’m disappointed–but unsurprised. Thanks, Susan!

    And, The_Myth: I hear you about the rah-rah. It sounds like reading Reason magazine, with all of the hopeful triumphalism about technology.


  15. “Jump the shark,” by coincidence, got declared officially so-over today in an item on _Slate_ that I (idly enough) happened to click on while waiting for something else to happen. “Under the bus” was deconstructed endlessly and breathlessly in the same essay, meanwhile, in what was purported to be a “Sontagian spirit,” so you know that’s serious [see “Notes on Catch,” _Slate_, 6/27], for what that’s worth].

    I think maybe the “active” part of the interactive gaming culture of Web 2.0 is overestimated, just like the transformative character of t.v. was when it was still new and edgy and black-and-white. The greatest scam then was a Saturday morning show called “Rinky Dink.” Kids were invited to get a package from the store which included a plastic wipe-off transparent sheet that affixed to the screen electromagnetically. Then, when “Rinky” got in trouble, you were able to save him by drawing a ladder for him to climb out on, or some similar intervention. Two problems: If you didn’t draw it, he still climbed anyway, so credibility was gone. But the great capitalist part was: kids who didn’t have the storebought thingy would naturally draw on the screen itself. This virtually compelled their parents to go buy a set to save scraping the crayon off the screen! I think the FCC stepped in. That’s not Sontagian, it’s Marcusian! I think I remember this, anyway, but mostly I’m just waiting to see what my avatar is when I get back to school in a couple of months!


  16. Correction. That’s _Winky Dink_. I shoulda wikipediaed the thing before I spoke. Bill Gates called it the first interactive game, and I guess it got syndicated again years later and maybe there’s a Web 2.0 version now?


  17. Tonight I was feeling too passive to do anything interactive so I got off the couch and went across town to the theatre in risky cabs. All because I was feeling too passive for anything more interactive, including the new media.

    I don’t know about the theory of drinking gin to get over the urbanization, but I like the image of gin carts!!!


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