Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

creation and consumption

From Megan Garber’s largely positive, thoughtful review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus:

But the problem with TV, in this framing, is its very teeveeness; the villain is the medium itself. The differences in value between, say, The Wire and Wipeout, here, don’t much matter — both are TV shows, and that’s what defines them. Which means that watching them is a passive pursuit. Which means that watching them is, de facto, a worse way — a less generous way, a more selfish way — to spend time than interacting online. As Shirky puts it: “[E]ven the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.”

The risk in this, though, for journalism, is to value creation over creativity, output over impulse. Steven Berlin Johnson may have been technically correct when, channeling Jeff Jarvis, he noted that in our newly connected world, there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing; but there’s a fine line between Shirky’s eminently correct argument — that TV consumption has been generally pernicious in its very passivity — and a commodified reading of time itself. Is the ideal to be always producing, always sharing? Is creating cultural products always more generous, more communally valuable, than consuming them? And why, in this context, would TV-watching be any different from that quintessentially introverted practice that is reading a book?

Sometimes it seems that in Shirky’s ideal world everyone is talking and no one is listening.

(I commented on the idea that not sharing is selfish here.)

8 comments:

  • And I responded there....

  • I am not a luddite or a technophobe, not at all. But where I sit, the elephant in the room is the linkage between technophilia and consumerism.

    As said previously, while we can all be innovative and entrepreneurial, we cannot all be Innovators or Entrepreneurs in any commercially meaningful sense of the word. It is simply impossible.

    But the (sometimes implied, sometimes explicit) promise of the technophile is this:

    Now, thanks to this wonderful new technology, for the first time, and more than ever, what is unique and valuable about you can finally be recognized.

    It's a seductive promise. I might even be true, in a way. But the primary reason it's being pitched is to get people to buy something, or (now) to get people to give their personal information to someone who thinks they can use it to sell them more stuff.

    And where I think things are different from when I decided to get off the (ever-accelerating) treadmill is when the cost of access falls to zero, it turns from a game that favors nimble new-comers to a game that favors either very well established, the hypertalented, or the exceptionally luck.

    In other words, the more people who go online, the more people who make blog, the more people who make lolcats, the more it benefits Andrew Sullivan, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerburg.

    I say that with no emnity. I am a great believer in commerce as the most pro-social force in human society; and I do believe IT offers new and intriguing ways for human beings to express themselves and have their expression recognized.

    But I also believe we have moved out of (as Timothy Wu might put it) the Utopian stage of the internet and into something more stable (as I might put it, a re-establishment of the underlying ecology.)

    This doesn't mean I don't think there's no value to be derived from what Shirky calls our "cognative surplus". But it's worth remembering that it took 1000s of years for the benefits of the surplus from agricultural revolution to trickle down to the average human.

  • In other words, the more people who go online, the more people who make blog, the more people who make lolcats, the more it benefits Andrew Sullivan, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerburg.

    That makes sense; and I'm still waiting for the argument — not just the assertion — of how it benefits the lolcat-makers. There may well be one, I just haven't found it yet. (Maybe it's later in Shirky's book . . . which I'm still a ways from finishing.)

  • "Inequality occurs in large and unconstrained social systems for the same reasons stop-and-go traffic occurs on busy roads, not because it is anyone's goal, but because it is a reliable property that emerges from the normal functioning of the system. The relatively egalitarian distribution of readers in the early years had nothing to do with the nature of weblogs or webloggers. There just weren't enough blogs to have really unequal distributions. Now there are."

    More here:

    http://www.shirky.com/writings/powerlaw_weblog.html

  • I'm still waiting for the argument — not just the assertion — of how it benefits the lolcat-makers. There may well be one, I just haven't found it yet.

    But it seems to me that the problem here is that you are both taking a very limited view of the word "benefits." If you mean monetary or tangible benefits, sure, both posting on lolcats or starting a blog have very little of those.

    But someone posting on lolcats gets to meet other people who share his or her interests. He gets an audience which regularly comments on his pictures, and he, in turn, comments on other people's pictures. These are benefits, surely?

    Now it would be nice to also have monetary benefits - but I agree that the days of a new-comer becoming a high-profile blogger (Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias et al) are over. But there are still niches to occupy and smaller communities to interact with. And those still have benefits, even if the big guys take up all the money.

  • I'm looking at the explosion of information in more of a James Poulus PinkPoliceState sort of way, or at least I hope I am; which is to say when I feel pessimistic I wonder if we're creating a society where people have a sense of being included, when in fact they are more excluded than ever; that both by design and an by odd sort of neccessity the mechanisms needed to sort such huge volumes of information (overwhelmingly) favor establishment voices/ideas over dissenting voices; and that this has radical implications for the apportionment of power; that we'll all be making and sharing lolcats while Rome burns, so to speak.

    For me this has implications that go well beyond recognizing that I'm never going to join the ranks of a-list bloggers. It means recognizing that any sort of digital interaction I have with anyone is more akin to having a conversation at the Mall than having a debate in the Public Square.

  • scritic, I certainly wasn't think of monetary benefits! (Nobody gets money from reading books or watching TV either.)

    You write, "But someone posting on lolcats gets to meet other people who share his or her interests." Okay, but then the benefit is meeting those people not making lolcats — lolcats are just means to that end. And maybe not a very good means to that end. That would need to be debated. But in any case, that's not how Shirky defends such behavior: he says that it's "creative" and "generous."

    "He gets an audience which regularly comments on his pictures, and he, in turn, comments on other people's pictures. These are benefits, surely?" Doesn't that depend on what the comments are? There's a reason why more and more people are turning off comments on their blogs!

    Again, I'll try to say more about this soon, but the whole situation is about fifty times more complicated than Shirky allows. Contexts vary widely. He decried watching TV and movies as "passive consumption," but I met and got to know my wife through movies that we both loved and loved to talk about (sometimes to argue about) together; whereas some people go online looking for connections to others and end up getting flamed into depression. It's just ridiculous to say that one medium is "passive" and therefore bad, and the other "creative" and therefore good. The terms are too crude and quite evidently inaccurate.

  • I owe my commenters better feedback than I'm giving, but I'm swamped!

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