Rise of the Machines, Part II

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.

And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we’ll do it less.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, Clay Shirky, April 26, 2008

What always fascinates me about the technology Utopian crowd– in this case, the web 2.0 guru, is that they sound like they are talking about people when really they are talking about systems. And whenever they talk about these systems amazing things happen, as if by magic.

It’s like looking for the subject in the sentence, “It’s raining.” Who is raining? Who is consuming and producing and sharing? It’s all that messiness of the world, uh, all the complications of the people in the world, that this way of thinking would like to avoid.

The problem is that if you fill in that blank “who” things don’t sound so nice or neat. We in the west have certainly created a social surplus, but it is deeply rooted in the poverty of the global south. And maybe Shirky is right that we also created a cognitive surplus.

I think, though, that people have always been smarter than the boredom offered by capitalism. Shirky says we went on a collective bender and watched sit coms for the last several decades. Some of us did other things– civil rights movements, or unions, or feminism, or environmentalism.

And some of us were doing other things: most dramatically, waging state-sponsored wars that killed hundreds of millions of other people. I think the people in the first group have just barely managed to save us from the people in the second group.

One of the ways these folks saved us is that they kept turning spears into plowshares; the paranoia about the Soviet Union helped to create the very internet that Shirky believes is going to save us. My guess is that this is simply another tool, and that we don’t quite yet know who will be using it.

I don’t think it helps, though, to talk about the future as if the dominos were already pushed over, even in the name of a certain kind of optimism. I think that first group still has a lot of spears left in its arsenals and that the creation of plowshares is not yet automated.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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