I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.
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.
It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.
Perhaps you can see his point about television coming:
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. 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.
We did that for decades.
So, if sitcoms “essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat,” where does that leave us now?
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.”
So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project — every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in — that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
The article isn’t complete without this cute anecdote:
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”
Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.