tvSmarter – Life in a TV Nation

Excerpts from “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky


Here’s a link to an article in Edge Magazine with the transcript of a very interesting talk by Clay Shirky called “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus”.  First is the introduction, then an essay by TIM O’REILLY, and then the actual talk which is about half way down the page.

In this talk, Shirky argues that our leisure time provides a societal “cognitive surplus”. Shirky argues that TV has, up until now, absorbed much of our society’s “cognitive surplus”.

But that now there has been a small shift away from watching TV and that even such small shifts can and will have a large effect:

Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.

…And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 98 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

Shirky provides some examples of social software

taking over from TV. My favorite is:

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus —”How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article—fighting offstage all the while—from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.

Furthermore, Shirky argues that:

And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. 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.

I didn’t agree with everything in his talk, but he makes some excellent points (especially about the lolcats).  What was particularly heartening was that his talk was such a big hit.  From the introduction:

When Shirky first made this assertion at a tech conference, he was astonished to see the video of the speech rocket around the web faster and more broadly than anything else he had ever said or done.

6 thoughts on “Excerpts from “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky

  1. Love this! Wow, there is actually a participatory reality outside of TV (Lobotomy) land…

    This has actually been my thought and hope what the world of tech and internet would do all along.

    Another phenomena I have been watching with this bizarre global economic reality chaos we are spinning through, is that I have been reading about a lot of people giving up their television watching because cable is so expensive…

    And thank you for the lead to the Edge site that is amazing. And thank you for posting this. As I have said before, your site helps bring some hopeful sanity to much of the other stuff I am seeing in our world…


  2. Hey Chris

    Thank you for your kind words!!

    “Wow, there is actually a participatory reality
    outside of TV (Lobotomy) land…”

    Ha! Lobotomy Land, that’s a perfect description.

    I like Shirky’s point about even a small shift away
    from TV having a profound impact. This election
    is a perfect example. Untruthful smears are less
    effective because people can go online to check
    the evidence. And issues are more important because
    for each issue, there is a wealth of info easily
    found on the web.

    Hopefully this small shift will turn into a
    180 degree turn!


  3. Speaking of TV… or should I say the “Church of TV advertising…” and the manipulation of cognitive surplus, or the lack thereof.

    Just came across this interesting and powerful (at least from my perspective) new book, “Buyology” that discusses the neurology and biology of how we are wired to buy stuff, and how marketers and product companies use this against us, when we do not pay attention to advertising manipulation.

    For example, people’s brains responded to corporate logos with the same attachment feeling when they were shown images of the pope, or religious icons…

    So in essence, as I am contemplating what is being said in the book, people are addicted to television also to learn how to use their chosen products for material rituals for life and living, just as one would attend a place of worship in order to learn religious and social behaviors in order to fit into our complex social structures. Television, especially iconic branding advertising reaffirms by intense perpetual repetition that the partaking of breaking the bread at a MacDonalds for example, is a comforting and always consistent socially acceptable, and safe cathedral of ritualistic social participation. Especially in unstable times…

    Or perhaps, another way of thinking why TV has become so important to people that they have a hard time giving it up, is that they need see and hear what is being preached about the products they use daily in accordance with their respective life rituals, of for example drinking coffee, soda or beer. Subconscious affirmation.

    This will be definitely an interesting read for sure. Just imagine, the church of Coca-cola… or fast food restaurants.

    Excerpt from Amazon review:

    “How much do we know about why we buy? What truly influences our decisions in today’s message-cluttered world? An eye-grabbing advertisement, a catchy slogan, an infectious jingle? Or do our buying decisions take place below the surface, so deep within our subconscious minds, we’re barely aware of them?

    In BUYOLOGY, Lindstrom presents the astonishing findings from his groundbreaking, three-year, seven-million-dollar neuromarketing study, a cutting-edge experiment that peered inside the brains of 2,000 volunteers from all around the world as they encountered various ads, logos, commercials, brands, and products. His startling results shatter much of what we have long believed about what seduces our interest and drives us to buy. Among his finding:

    Gruesome health warnings on cigarette packages not only fail to discourage smoking, they actually make smokers want to light up.

    Despite government bans, subliminal advertising still surrounds us – from bars to highway billboards to supermarket shelves.

    “Cool” brands, like iPods trigger our mating instincts.

    Other senses – smell, touch, and sound – are so powerful, they physically arouse us when we see a product.

    Sex doesn’t sell. In many cases, people in skimpy clothing and suggestive poses not only fail to persuade us to buy products – they often turn us away. [ But when the sexually laden ads become socially controversial they do work. Calvin Klein marketing is a master showcase of creating controversial images. Which answers my long time question why an average normal person shopping in a Pennys type mall store would spend $300 on a $15 sweat shirt with only his name on it…]

    Companies routinely copy from the world of religion and create rituals – like drinking a Corona with a lime – to capture our hard-earned dollars.

    Filled with entertaining inside stories about how we respond to such well-known brands as Marlboro, Nokia, Calvin Klein, Ford, and American Idol, BUYOLOGY is a fascinating and shocking journey into the mind of today’s consumer that will captivate anyone who’s been seduced – or turned off – by marketers’ relentless attempts to win our loyalty, our money, and our minds. Includes a foreword by Paco Underhill.”


  4. Hi Chris
    That “Buyology” does sound very interesting.
    Looking forward to reading it (I just added it to my
    wish list). Hopefully it will explain how we are persuaded
    to spend vast amounts of time and money at the
    “Temple of Commerce” (i.e. the Mall).


  5. Temple of Commerce. Indeed!

    You should see the movie “Idiocracy.” A fascinating and also scary sarcasm on American consumer culture. Main stream media buried the marketing of this movie because it was too close to reality.


  6. Hi Chris

    Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for “Idiocracy”.

    America seems to be teetering on the edge of “Idiocracy”
    right now, so I’ve definitely got my fingers crossed
    for next Tuesday!

    It would be so refreshing to have a president Obama
    who thinks and reads and doesn’t believe in having the
    TV on all the time.


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