Time: you might have sooo much of it

Clay Shirky

Both in my “day job” at The Economist and in my new role as aspiring author, I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s … time. Do people who might read my book when it comes out even have the time to do so? Would they volunteer to spend it reading?

Somebody who makes good sense on the topic is Clay Shirky. He is an NYU professor and consultant and a new-media thinker.

Why do I find his perspective refreshing? First, because he takes a loooong historical perspective to understand our current situation, which is exactly what I do in my book, even though it happens to be about a different topic. So Shirky starts with the “information overload” problem posed by the Library of Alexandria, exacerbated by Gutenberg’s printing press and (wait for the surprise) soon to be solved in our own time.

More to the point: In the talk at the bottom of this post, which I attended, he exposes, with an ironic anecdote, the flaw in the widespread hypothesis that we have too little time to deal with our alleged information overload. He is talking to an American TV producer, who asks him what cool things on the internet he has seen lately. He begins to talk about the fascinating evolution of the Wikipedia page on the planet Pluto. She says nothing, then pops the question:  “Where do people find the time?”

And Clay loses it:  “I just snapped. And I said, No one who works in TV gets to ask that question.” That’s because that time that people find comes in large part out of the “cognitive surplus” you [ie, the TV industry] have been masking for the past forty years!

A short calculation to illustrate his point:

1) All of the articles in all languages of Wikipedia, by Clay’s estimate, took 100 million hours of human thought to compose.

2) Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV a year. They spend 100 million hours a weekend just watching the ads on TV!

So there is actually a huge surplus of thought and creativity, and we are only just discovering how to use it.

A Renaissance of reading?

His thinking extends fluidly to the context that I care more about, book-reading. Shirky is mildly bemused by the widespread fear about the alleged “end” of literary reading.

First, the medium to blame, if any, is not the internet but TV, forty years ago. See above. “What the Internet has actually done,” he says in this interview,

is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people. Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody.

And so, in twists and turns, you get a lot of the current hysteria about the internet, which emanates not from twenty-somethings on Facebook, who are a lot savvier than their parents ever were, but from those parents who now hold down jobs in, say, the TV industry. They are the new Luddites, like that woman who interviewed Clay. Luddism, he says, “is specifically a demand that the people who benefited from the old system be consulted before any technology is allowed to disrupt it.”

Long story short: Turn off–better: throw away–your TV set; then read my book as soon as it’s published. 😉



6 thoughts on “Time: you might have sooo much of it

  1. Hi Andreas,

    My hit on your post is that people who are readers, read and think, often critically.

    People who feed from their TVs on their couches and in their beds, digest stuff, much of it mindless.

    I will read your book. I promise. And, I might recommend it to my friends and colleagues, who are readers. 🙂

    One of my posts discusses our need for privacy and quiet, which are hard to acquire in a home where the television rules.

    http://www.cheriblocksabraw.com/2008/10/privacy-please.html

    Hello from the desert!

  2. The excuse that “I don’t have the time” is one I hear constantly from those to whom I recommend books.

    The fact is, we somehow find the time to do what interests us, whether watching TV, making model aeroplanes, or love, or reading books. Those who “don’t have the time” to read the book I recommend, wouldn’t read it had they all the time in the world. They simply aren’t interested, and don’t wish to say this.

    Finding time to read a book is surprisingly easy, for we can carry the book around with us, and dip into it whenever we have a few minutes in-between doing the important things. We can dip into it when riding on the bus or train to and from work or appointments, or during lunch and coffee-breaks, or even when walking along the street (I’ve seen this not infrequently).

    I once heard of someone who wrote a complete novel while commuting on the train to and from the office (an hour each way) over many months.

    “…….Turn off–better: throw away–your TV set…….”. Without having intended it, my own TV watching is now almost nil, being now replaced by idle internet surfing, reading articles off the computer screen, and…………blogging. I even eat my supper in front of my computer. This isn’t emotionally healthy, I know, but…………what the hell.

    I’m finding, though – doubtless because of my immersion in cyberspace – that my attention span isn’t what it was. This malady seems to be shared by not a few, as shown in this article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid” http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google

    And yes, I promise to buy your book and read it when it’s published!!

  3. “Hello from the desert”… ?
    You’re in a desert and logging on? My god, Cheri, I must start to blog from more exotic locations or risk whatever remains of my street cred as a nomad.
    Great post on privacy. Your list of ten steps, as I said in a comment underneath it, gives me all sorts of ideas. It is, shall we say, timeless wisdom.

    All of us, Christopher, seem to agree with Clay that TV is evil (which you would expect from people who meet in the comments underneath blogs).

    Regarding our attention spans: I read Nick’s piece in the Atlantic when it came out and have been pondering it ever since. I feel a post forming, but not entirely in agreement.

    May I point out, for example, that you, Christopher, feeling as guilty about your waning span as you do, have already displayed an impressive steadfastness and constancy of attention by returning, time and again, to this … humble blog.

    So Nick must have put his finger on something while neglecting something else. More to come….

  4. I promise I’ll read your book, but I might buy a DVD about Hannibal first, just so I have a little better foundation. :-).

    Some time during the writer’s strike I forgot to care about TV. As soon as I lose analog reception, we’ll put our little TV up on the shelf with the rest of the tchotchkes. I’m not bragging like a high minded intellectual. This is OK. The internet has become my path of least resistance. I’m not a great writer who experiences flow as you do while writing, but I appreciate the connection.

    Book publishers shouldn’t feel particularly jilted by the internet. I’ll wager that other cults feel left out. What about model train enthusiasts, ham radio operators and duck hunters?

  5. No, no, no. Don’t buy a DVD first. the whole point is that I will make it so easy and fun that you need no prior knowledge about Hannibal at all. Annd along the way you effortlessly learn about your own life…..

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