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Social surplus or accursed share?

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Tuesday, Apr 29, 2008

Clay Shirky, the technophilic author of a new book about spontaneous organizational behavior online, recently delivered this widely linked speech about how TV once managed to suck up the “social surplus” that is now being directed into building social networks and open-source applications and whatnot on the internet. He argues that the 20th century brought us more disposable leisure time, and it brought us TV to help us dissipate it.


Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened—rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before—free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.



Shirky then explains that while Wikipedia took an estimated 100 million hours of human participation to create, American TV viewers spend that much time every weekend watching advertisements.


Currently, with Web 2.0, etc., society is erecting a “architecture of participation” (a term he borrows from tech-industry consultant Tim O’Reilly) which will allow people to switch gears from passive consumption of TV to active participation in collective social projects—annotating maps and debugging software and posting lolcats and correcting misinformed bloggers in comments and that sort of thing.


It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s message—I can do that, too—is a big change.
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.


Shirky’s vision of the future sounds great. We all benefit when we contribute our spare time to projects that in theory benefit society at large. And when people are more attuned to their productive rather than their consuming capabilities, they are probably likely to be much happier, as displaying one’s ability to make things is a quintessentially human quality and social recognition makes life worth living. But some skepticism is in order. The notion of a social surplus sounds a lot like Bataille’s accursed share. Bataille argues that in a post-scarcity society, individuals need to come up with ways to destroy excess production through various modes of luxurious waste in order to sustain economic growth. From this point of view, wastefulness is intentional, a demonstration of wealth. Squandering the surfeit of free time on sitcoms seems a variation on this. Perhaps, watching TV is not like drinking gin, as Shirky suggests, but like conspicuous consumption. It’s a triumph of our culture that we can waste entire evenings on Battlestar Galactica rather than, say, foraging for food. The point of free time is wasting it, not employing it productively in some other arena. An hour spent watching VH1 = luxury. An hour spent annotating a Google map = digital sharecropping. I don’t want to believe this, but empirical observation suggests that it’s true that many people have this attitude. Most people aren’t looking for ways to be more productive; instead they tend to seek means to consume more. And if they are given reasons to believe their manic consumption is really a kind of production in itself, so much the better. The culture industry’s main thrust in the internet era has been to do just that, make consumption feel like it’s participation, so we don’t feel bad when we don’t better avail ourselves of the “architecture of participation”. Chances are, this architecture will become more akin to a Playland at McDonald’s than the infrastructure for a social revolution.

In the quote from Shirky, a lot hinges on the inadequately defined word interesting. Likewise for his assertion that people watching TV are doing “nothing.” Some people will not be easy to convince that watching TV is equal to doing nothing, that it is not in fact “doing something interesting.” What the culture industry has traditionally done is not only mask the social surplus, as Shirky notes, but sell the passive squandering of it as a dignified social activity—watching “Must-see TV” becomes a way to participate in water-cooler conversations that occur mainly in our imaginations. The internet is a real ongoing conversation, one that opens us to risks (of embarrassment or irritation) as well as rewards. But the pretend conversation we have while passively consuming is 100 percent safe. We are also persuaded that participation and collaboration are more inconvenient than individuation and private consumption in isolation. In my life, this plays out as me playing chess against a computer when I could readily play against human opponents online. In my mind, playing a human is more rewarding, but in practice playing the computer fulfills my need for momentary, commitment-free distraction. Sharing and cooperation leads inevitably to compromise, and the main thrust of most advertising is to convince us never to compromise when pursuing what we want in our hard-earned leisure time.


In short, the marketing world and the culture industry at large invests a lot in making doing nothing feel like something, and for many of us, it does; we collaborate on the fiction with the marketers, and this curbs our inclination for the sort of collaborating Shirky talks about. Shirky does qualify his statements by saying that it only a few people to change their habits to produce a huge shift once the behavior is leveraged across the internet. And perhaps that is enough to prompt optimism. But the same forces that enable online sharing also enable deeper individuation, filtering, personalization and so on, discouraging cooperation on anyone else’s terms, limiting the usefulness of what is shared. It also extends marketing’s reach, enhancing the power of its messages about the joys of passive consumption and fantasizing about identity rather than “doing something.”


The most difficult word to define, then, is participation—to a certain degree we can’t help but participate in our culture, and Web-style interactivity has become much more prominent in that culture. But with that prominence the phenomenon becomes domesticated, becomes a new way to absorb the social surplus harmlessly, becomes the new way to watch TV. Its fruits are trivial before the fact, because most people don’t want to see themselves as revolutionaries, and many want to luxuriate in flamboyant triviality. They are already absorbed into the status quo, which perhaps is subtly shifting along the lines Shirky is suggesting but is always in the process of disguising the change. The radical breaks that futurists and techno-evangelists are always predicting is always about to happen; it can never actually come.

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