Television may be the gin of the information age, but that doesn’t mean the web is pure water

Flickr - in the future we will all wear shiny suits and watch bright red televisions

The new media revolutionary in me so much wants to believe Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” hypothesis, that the web heralds a new era of mass participation, collaboration and creativity. With our mobile phones and broadband connections we remade society, so that my five-year-old son cannot conceive of a world without the web (“Daddy, if people didn’t have computers, how did they buy things from the Internet,” he once asked.) We are the generation that Changed Everything. How cool is that?

But then my inner history graduate rebels. I’m innately suspicious of anyone who says human behaviour has changed fundamentally. The joy of history is in its humanity, in all the stories that show how our ancestors were ordinary people who laughed, loved, tricked and schemed just like we do today. If Baby Boomers claim they invented sex, just refer them to Roman pottery and the satirical cartoons of the 18th Century.

And so I believe in our bright human future: that so long as people survive, they will behave much like their stone age forebears. The context may be different, but people are people across time and space. And that’s a Good Thing.

So I’m deeply conflicted when, on the blog accompanying his book, Shirky launches a puritanical attack on television as a sink that dissipates our thoughts, and compares it to the socially sedative role of gin in our early industrial revolution cities. The theory goes that:

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

Television, the dominant mass media of the second half of the 20th Century is our modern-day equivalent of gin. But despair not, for Shirky has us all roused from our stupor by the Internet in all its chaotic glory, millions of Wikipedia edits, captioned cat photos and all.

The fact that Internet users watch less TV has been a commonplace for some time, so Shirky builds on this to show that if everyone watches just a little less TV and participates a little more online, whole new sources of value will be unlocked from our newly productive endeavours. We The Web Users can be morally superior to the Telly Addicts of the past: they consumed, we create.

It’s a great analogy, but I’m suspicious of the conclusion. Why? Because TV watching is not the only thing being edged out to make way for all those hours online. Not only do we watch less TV, we also sleep less and spend less time interacting with our families.

I started to list some things I do less as a result of having the internet:

  • watch tv
  • talk about tv
  • buy magazines
  • phone people up
  • write letters
  • go to the shops
  • go to the library
  • queue to pay bills
  • look out of the window on trains
  • sleep

Now a couple of these things – watching TV, buying magazines – do seem like gin, the one-way attention sink activities, (though as fundamentally social beings, it’s never long before two or more people assembled before a television set are debating and discussing the content, hurling abuse at the screen or fighting over the remote control).

But what about the others?

I now communicate less by phone and letter, and more by email or text. Where’s the cost in that? Well I reckon it’s in the nuances, the tone of voice, the side-tracked conversations, the pictures scribbled in the margins, that just don’t happen so much online. So I’ve substituted some inconvenient but rich communications media for handier, cheaper, but less subtle ones.

I shop online for stuff so I don’t have to go to the shops, and I Google for information so I don’t have to go to the library. So there goes a whole load of opportunities for collaboration – chance meetings with friends, taking my cue subconsciously from what other shoppers are looking at, and so on.

Then there’s the contemplation time. I used to stand in queues, look out of the window, ignore the TV and let my mind wander. Greater efficiency in transactions and communications is squeezing out those times, and I wonder if the quality of my communications is suffering just as their quantity increases. And that’s before the sleep deprivation kicks in, tiredness and drunkenness sharing many symptoms.

So maybe TV was the gin of the information age, but the internet has a way to go before it’s the clean drinking water that will unleash our productivity. Exchanges on online social networks are so far a pale shadow of the sophisticated interactions that happen when people get together in the real world. And whatever the medium, tomorrow’s people are highly likely to remain much like the people we know today: at once creative and lazy, generous and greedy. If attention is a finite resource, so surely is virtue.

The irony that I’m saying this on a blog is not lost on me. And no, I’m not about to retreat to my log cabin with a manual typewriter, but I do believe there are a few things we need to work on. To do that, we need to understand the good and bad stuff we’re leaving behind, as much as the huge potential of the new technology we embrace.

Disclosure: I write this post having made it up to page 99 of Here Comes Everybody. It’s a great, thought-provoking book and I fully expect to revise my opinion by the time I reach the end. Please consider this a review in perpetual beta :)

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