Clay Shirky and the “cognitive surplus”

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.

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