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. 😉