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.