28 Apr 2008

You and me, baby.

Tonia stumbled upon a really great blog post over the weekend. So good that she wanted to rush upstairs and point and gush and say, “Look look this is so good you have to read this!” She didn’t, because I was in Podcast Mode for all of Sunday and when I’m in Podcast Mode I tend to hold my hand up in the air like a traffic cop, and stop people dead in their tracks when they want to talk to me. Single minded podcaster, that’s me. Tonia was so good on Sunday, and the podcast happened because she brought me food all day, and basically left me alone to to work. Eventually I came up for air, and I sat down at her work laptop on the kitchen table (on weekends there are five laptops in this house – Tonia swears they follow her home) and I got to read the thing she was so excited about.

Written by a guy named Clay Shirky it’s a transcript of a talk he gave at the recent Web 2.0 conference, about the impact of gin in the early industrial age. No really. When people were moving from farms to factories, society was so whacked out by the upheaval of a long standing social order that pushcart vendors sold gin in the neighborhoods, and everyone basically went on a bender for an entire generation. Eventually society sorted itself out and and realized that there were some good things that could come out of life in the cities, like museums and libraries and basic education for children. Once an entire generation of people were done freaking out about changes to society, there was a whole lot of what Shirky likes to call “cognitive surplus” that made all the good things we associate with the industrial age happen.

I love looking at parallels between the industrial revolution at the turn of the last century, and the information revolution at the turn of the most recent one. When my casual interest in the scouting movement last summer morphed into a sort of minor obsession this year, what struck me were the similarities between the Modern Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that gave rise to scouting, and the Modern Age we are living in now. The world looks a lot different, but despite the proliferation of modern conveniences, we are not so different from our great grandparents. We worry that the world moves too fast, just as they did. We long for real community, and connection with self and others that seems to be missing from our own age. I am becoming convinced that this is what drives the crafting movement of our own Modern Age. There isn’t much else to explain our desire to make things by hand, in a world that no longer needs us to do that.

Clay goes on to say that TV sitcoms are the gin of our age. That we’ve been on a Gilligan’s Island and Desperate Housewives bender for some time now. An entire generation of people lost to Lost. It’s my generation, and it’s hard to argue with what he says. It’s not like I watch a lot of television, but I do watch. I’m gutted that I was so focused on getting the podcast out, that I completely forgot about the BBC biopic about Jane Austen last night. I would have loved to have seen it. Reading Shirky’s piece, however, reminded me this morning I really didn’t miss much.

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Not that a wonderfully produced costume piece on the BBC in anyway compares to Gilligan’s Island, but I realized as I was reading Shirky’s piece over again that I’d actually been occupied last night doing the very thing that his article talks about. I was producing media. I was creating. I was doing something.

It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

This is it in a nutshell. Why I began podcasting. Because some guy with poofy hair who used to be on MTV talked to me every morning in a podcast recorded on his kitchen table, and his message was that I could do it too.

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

Everyone in the Yarniverse seems to agree that the Internet has changed so much about the way knitters relate to their craft. Yarn and needles will always be the same, but how we find the patterns we use, the way we share information about materials and method, that’s all changed now. We have stopped spending so much time mindlessly consuming media, and we choose instead to spend our surplus cognitive capital in such exciting ways. We write, we connect, we create, we share. I do worry that Big Media and Big Government will one day find a way to stop or slow the pipeline, and the free access we have to the network, this thing that makes it all possible, will no longer exist. Which will be great for Big Business, but will be very bad for people. It’s nice to know that there are clever people in the world, people like Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, who are thinking about these things; about the way that people connect and share and build upon ideas. And they are talking about them. They give me hope.

You can read the full text of Clay Shirky’s article here. He’s also written a book. It’s on my reading list.

Posted on April 28, in Blog


  1. M-H wrote:

    Another way to look at this is that we used to have ‘broadcasting’ and now we have ‘narrowcasting’. It does have profound social implications, because where once people got their information about government, changes to policy and regulation etc, through newspapers, radio and a few tv channels (and sometimes all the news they got was basically produced by the same news organisation that owned a range of outlets), so that most people got much the same information across society. Now the sources are much more diverse and people have to learn to discriminate between the sources available and figure out which one ‘tells the truth’. (That’s assuming that any of them do!) Interesting stuff.

    Posted on 4.29.08 ·
  2. Diane wrote:

    I have this feeling that BIG GOV’T & BIG MEDIA won’t be able to control what we now so freely share on the Internet. Too many people will complain and make a ruckus. Have you seen Yochai Benkler on http://www.ted.com ? Ted.com has become for me what television used to be–so many interesting talks, so little time 🙂 And it’s great to listen to while

    Posted on 5.2.08 ·
  3. Lori wrote:

    Boy, does this help to explain (if ANYONE out there needs an explanation) the fanatic success of Ravelry. I would add Jess and Casey to the clever people list (last paragraph).

    Posted on 5.3.08 ·
  4. Zanknits wrote:

    Okay, weird, but…

    I work with Clay Shirky! Of course, by ‘work with’, I mean ‘I am a lowly office aide in the department where he teaches and I bring him coffee.’

    Small world.

    Posted on 5.4.08 ·
  5. Angelina wrote:

    …entirely off-topic…
    while I completely agreed with (I love God soooooooo much!!) you being challenged, I also agreed entirely with your use of ‘baddest’ – where else were you supposed to go with that????

    I am a QN groupie, and it’s all your fault


    Posted on 5.9.08 ·
  6. Bonnee wrote:

    I love the comparison of TV to gin. I really do. You should listen to episode 328 of “This American Life”, produced by Chicago Public Radio. They are basically saying the same thing… That television is now the mindless consumption to waste hours because we no longer know how else to amuse ourselves. In some respects, I must agree, but I also can’t help myself. I don’t watch “Desperate Housewives”, but I do watch a lot of Discovery Channel, History Channel and, I can’t help it, but I’m addicted to “People’s Court” and “Judge Judy”. Okay, okay… the secret passion. I have no clue why, but I’ve been watching “Dancing with the Stars” since season one. But I record it to DVR and then fast forward through all the commercials and chat and it’s amazing how there’s about 17.5 mins of actual dancing in a 2-hr show. Flip to the last 2 mins of the results show and you know who’s been bumped. What’s really funny is that I’m so spoiled with the fast forward button that I get frustrated when I watch an actual show “live”. I’m more apt to record and watch later than sit through all the ads at the time. So does that make me only half mindless? /g/

    Posted on 5.10.08 ·
  7. Clarine wrote:

    This makes me happy because I have been reading many books about the Volstead Act recently. I found writings about my home city called, Gamblers & Gangsters. I had no idea our local Baptist college used to be an infamous gambling parlor and gin-joint. The historical information is absolutely fascinating.

    Posted on 5.15.08 ·

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