There's a powerful meme doing the rounds at the moment online, linking gin with sitcoms, TV and the wikipedia, put forward by academic Clay Shirky.
It proposes that TV sit-coms for the last 50 years have served largely the same role that gin did during the industrial revolution, and that interactive, collaborative media (like the wikipedia project) are roughly analogous to the formation of the welfare state infrastructure set up during the same period. In the context of this blog it's worth a read, but if you're short for time, here are the main points:
The critical technology for the industrial revolution, was gin. The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and wrenching that the only thing society could do to cope for a generation was drink itself into a stupor. Once everyone had woken up from this collective bender, people began to see all these people together as a resource to be harnessed, rather than merely a problem. a civic surplus. Public libraries and museums were built, and education was expanded, to use this surplus productively.
In the twentieth century, the sit-com served much the same role as gin. After the world wars, a series of demographic changes had occurred (higher life expectancies, higher incomes, more people working 5 day weeks), meaning that people suddenly had more spare time than they didn't quite know what to do with. So they mostly used it to watch television, and the sit-com worked as a cognitive heatsink, to dissipate all the excess thinking that might cause society to overheat. Only now, in the twenty first century are we waking up from the same collective bender, and realising that there's this massive cognitive surplus that's been masked by television for the past 50 years, and it can be used for more than just watching Desperate Housewives.
This gets more interesting when we start putting some figures into this theory. Outlining his theory Clay Shirky points to the Wikipedia project:
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.
Now compare that figure to the time spent watching television:
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.
That the Wikipedia project, and a plethora of social networking sites exist suggests that this surplus can be used for more than just watching TV:
It's illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn't have imagined existing even five years ago.
Our generations have grown up with television as our dominant medium. We've learnt to make some assumptions about media - that the default is passive, and follows a broadcast model; where if there is interaction, it's usually limited to pressing a single button in on screen polls. But the generations growing up now have a whole different set of assumptions about media; that they should be free to interact, modify, and build on it, and different idea about how they want to spend their cognitive surplus.
So far, we've been looking at US figures; but looking at global cognitive surplus available gives us a sense of the scale we're dealing with here:
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 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.
I don't know about you, but 100 projects the size of Wikipedia each year sounds like a pretty big deal to me.