I am speeding along on a train somewhere in New Jersey. In minutes I will be in Philadelphia for this week's Crowd Fusion codejam. Probably on TechMeme I came across a link to an article by Clay Shirky called Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. Intrigued by the title, I loaded it and 20 other articles into Firefox tabs. Many of those loaded articles will never get read, but I am glad I read Clay's from start to finish.
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.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
He goes on to compare the total amount of time spent editing the Wikipedia to date and how much time we spend watching television. In the U.S. alone every year we spend 2,000 Wikipedia projects watching television. Wild.
Then he explained how when even a fraction of passive television watching time -- our cognitive surplus -- gets used for collaborative creative efforts how amazing it will be. People like to create. They'd rather be doing something that doing nothing and collaborative Internet projects might be the next revolution's gin and sitcoms.
About the title: A lifetime ago in Internet years, Clay Shirky wrote a column in Jason's Silicon Alley Reporter magazine. Being the naming guy (and the platform guy, yes, yes, I know) I got to give all the columns names. Xeni Jardin's was called Jardin Party. Okay, not my cleverest name. Since it sounded like the movie Get Shorty, I named Clay's column Get Shirky.