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Blog: Pegging a Share of the Social Surplus

Blog: Pegging a Share of the Social Surplus

And you thought - or at least the government would have you think - that binge drinking is a problem for our times! It seems the critical technology for the early phase of the industrial revolution - a time arguably every bit as turbulent as our own - was gin.

History records that the transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, so wrenching, that society responded by drinking itself into a stupor for a generation, aided and abetted by the gin pushcarts that worked their way through the streets of London, according to Emerging Technology guru Clay Shirky, author of a new book called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

Only after society began to sober up did we see the emergence of the institutional structures we associate with the industrial revolution today: things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children and elected leaders. Such things "didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset".

Likewise if Shirky 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", he'd pick the sitcom as the gin of the times.

In his blog Here Comes Everybody, Shirky argues that post the Second World War, a confluence of events and situations: rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks, forced vast numbers of citizens to find something to do with their free time. The result, he says, was a binge on TV watching.

"We did that for decades," he writes. "We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watched Malcolm in the Middle. We watched Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

"And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement."

Just look at what happened with the Wikipedia article on Pluto, he argues. The decision to kick Pluto out of the planetary club a couple of years ago sparked a firestorm of controversy and activity on Wikipedia. "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.'

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