Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Undoubtedly, most of you who read my blog have already seen the links to Clay Shirky’s “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” and here’s the video link.

I avoided it for a little while as I haven’t always been a huge fan of his thinking. But I have to say that this presentation is a very interesting packaging of ideas.

There’s a lot here that goes unsaid, and I’d love to hear more of his thoughts, specifically around the idea of anesthetizing the masses. One of the prevailing assumptions that underlies modern western culture is that people with a surplus of discretionary time tend to do things that undermine social stability.

Just like modern adults use television to babysit our children, so too are we babysat while away from our supervised sessions of production.

This assumption is well illustrated in the attitudes of the TV producer who is both shocked that people would have any free time, and casually dismissed the value of production that is not guided by industry.

I know this is all sounding distinctly Marxist, and I know that’s verboten but it’s all over this presentation.

Shirky’s contention is that there’s a cultural easing-in period where people adjust to dramatic shifts in how we live our lives. In this case, working only 5 day weeks. It’s also his contention that this period is coming to an end, and people are starting to demand and generate ways of not only consuming content, but also producing and sharing it as well.

Now we’re strongly back into Marxist territory here, and the terrifying realm of the proletariat controlling the means of production. This brings with it the terrifying notion of decentralized wealth and power. This should give you some indication of why establishment entities are both dismissive of this movement, and deathly afraid of it.

It’s been demonstrated before that this kind of thing is a slippery slope. It starts as entertainment, but quickly establishes expectations about other human interactions as well. And you quickly start running into all the concerns that you have around wikipedia: authority, expertise, trust, influence. Can we have a highly participatory culture, absent clear hierarchies of trust and expertise which produce meaningful and valuable outputs?

Like Clay says, Wikipedia is a valuable social experiment for exactly that reason.

Clay used a key word in his presentation that I think is at the heart of what’s challenging our established culture. Participation. Not production.

One of the ideas that social conservatives have done a great job of instilling in people is: people who don’t produce (i.e. participate in a structured way toward a profitable end) are harmful to society and must be marginalized, punished or re-educated into returned productivity.

This idea plays off of a very basic social need that all humans have. We feel better doing something when other people are doing it as well. We feel more comfortable with homogenous behavior. When other people make substantially different choices than we do, it activates expensive and uncomfortable brain processes that have to understand and integrate that behavior into your worldview. It’s much less expensive and uncomfortable to simply bash, coerce or educate people to make the same decisions that you’ve made. There’s probably a sociology term for this, but I’ll call it exclusive interaction. We focus on a smaller group of acceptable behaviors and ideas, keep deviation to a minimum, and the burden of education, mediation, and management is relatively small.

This social need can also be fed by a participation society which is what Clay is talking about here. Participation societies (inclusive interaction) demand that people have an extended tolerance for what acceptable behaviors and ideas are. As a result you end up with a wider variety of products that issue forth from those behaviors and ideas. But that wider variety makes it much harder to educate, mediate, and manage people, thus the conservative argument that society will break down, chaos will ensue, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria… etc, etc.

Fundamental to the social conservative argument is that people have a limited tolerance for individual differences, that cannot be increased even if you educate or legislate it. This limited tolerance will inevitably lead to conflict. So the best thing to prevent conflict is to homogenize behaviors and ideas and get everyone behind them.

But, people being the wiley and diverse creatures that they are, will always have some portion of their brainpan winging away on thoughts and driving behaviors that are deviant to accepted norms. In unsupervised moments, we need ways of suppressing or sublimating thoughts and urges that fall outside those norms. Therefore: Alcohol, TV, religion etc.

The fundamental change that we’re assuming is happening when we say that participation culture is emerging, is that society is becoming more liberal.

Now this is an interesting thing. There’s a constant pendulum that has swung back and forth between conservative and liberal throughout the history of human civilizations, though most noticeably in societies we would consider “free”.

As the rules tighten up, enough “mainstream” people start falling to the fringe, start to push back, and we become more liberal. As this happens, more and more “deviant” people gain status and power and social order becomes more difficult to sustain and things have to tighten up again. This is a huge simplification, but I think it’s relatively accurate.

What makes this interesting is that this liberalization cycle comes along with tremendous tools for connecting and communicating directly with large numbers of other people across the world. It also comes with “means of production” that are so close to free, that almost anyone in the western world has access to them.

This is another way of saying that our ability to marginalize those ideas and behaviors that fall outside the mainstream is drastically reduced.

By controlling production, and structuring the free time of our populous with ideas and behaviors that we control, we maintain a rough semblance of order.

When we loose the ability to structure free time, and in large part have lost control of production, it makes it much harder to maintain a smaller set of ideas and behaviors, and this can lead to the other side of the technological blade which we’re already starting to see which is largely manifested in loss of privacy.

Cameras are going up everywhere. The government is reading your e-mail and listening to your calls (no it’s not just foreign nationals). Technology is in the works to detect lies in a 100% reliable way using fMRIs. When society feels its grip slipping it finds a way to clench its fist.

So while I agree that participatory culture is here to stay in the near and mid-term, and it has broad social and cultural implications. I am mightily afeard of what the next sweep of conservatism will have to do to reign this all in. In large part, that response will be dictated by our ability to moderate and manage a larger set of ideas and channel them into constructive behaviors. And while we have drastically increased our ability to generate and disseminate ideas, I’m not sure that we’ve gotten any better at the business of preventing larger sets of ideas from generating conflict and disorder.

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