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Clay Shirky & the Power of Disposable Attention

Thanks to Derek Dysart, I was able to hear Clay Shirky's "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" talk from the Web 2.0 Expo, embedded for your viewing pleasure:

Clay's assertion is that like gin sold from pushcarts helping Londoners cope with the sudden shift from rural farming to urban industrialization, the TV sitcom helped post-WWII society cope with a new surplus of leisure and free time:

If I 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, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before — free time.

He argues that society is awakening from a focus on TV sitcoms, and is realizing that they are in a position to create the content they want. They are able to contribute to the discussion, in ways not possible before:

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.

What Shirky calls a cognitive surplus, I like to call disposable attention. Some may choose to spend attention on one-way activities like TV, but this is changing with the new generation. Shirky shares this story about one young girl's reaction to TV:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

I'm fascinated at how deeply this 4 year old has been impacted by interactivity in her life. She so wanted to have an impact on the TV show she was experiencing that she had to "find the mouse" in an effort to make an impact. Consuming was not enough for her — she wanted to interact.

There are many new opportunities available to us that were not available 10 years ago. We have the power to create. We have the power to write our own stories on blogs, tell them in podcasts and show them in videos. We can contribute to larger projects like Wikipedia or attend BarCamps.

The encouragement to me in all this is we're moving beyond the stage of simply sitting on a couch, accepting what's being presented. We're given the opportunity to create and share our own stories, finding there are others like us out there, interested in our stories and willing to share theirs with us.

Here are a few great parting quotes from Shirky's talk:

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won't have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan's Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

Related Links
Transcript of Clay's talk
Book: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
Mark Bernstein: Shirky and History

Reader Comments (3)

Man that really makes me want to go back to school and have Clay as a professor. What a great talk, and really makes you think. The sheer number of "Wikipedias" that could be generated by 1% reduction in TV watching is pretty astounding.
May 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rundle
I sort of have the same feeling as the first commenter, but we've always joked we want our kid to go to NYU, mainly so we could come an visit. Now I'd love to see him learn under someone like Shirky.
May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDerek
Mike & Derek, I agree. It would be exciting to have a chance to be a student or have our kids as students in Clay's classes.

I'm excited for everyone though, having this opportunity in our lifetimes to make an impact on culture for the better. I really do hope a large portion of our culture's disposable attention will be used for good, on the net and off.
May 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde

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