Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cognitive capacity?

Clay Shirky has an intriguing thesis that sitcoms arose to absorb a surplus of cognitive capacity, a surplus that was made possible through 20th century automation (and, one might add, shorter working weeks and the move away from subsistence agriculture). We had more time and opportunity to think, and sitcoms were one way to absorb that time.

Shirky estimates -- through what looks to me like dodgy math, but it's a popular book, not an academic one -- that if we take Wikipedia as a unit representing 100 million hours of human thought, then television watching represents 2000 Wikipedias a year.

And he argues:
Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.
He might have a point. I watch perhaps three or four hours of TV a week, and it's Tivo'd so that I can skip the parts I don't care for (including commercials and any screen appearance by Ryan Seacrest). The time I would otherwise spend on TV goes to reading my RSS aggregator and blogging stories like this one, stories that eventually plug into my scholarly work. (Or doing Ashtanga, but let's set that aside.) This activity counts as recreation, but works out as intellectual labor returned to the larger scholarly community.

Similarly, we've seen an explosion in social networking and cooperative gaming, in which people abandon the TV to produce innumerable texts that build up their own personal archives (brands?) and connect with others. Add to that the more ephemeral but omnipresent phenomenon of texting and you get a lot of intellectual surplus used in productive ways (productive in the sense that people are constructing things rather than simply viewing them).

Death of the sitcom frees up 2,000 Wikipedias worth of cognitive capacity - Boing Boing
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