I came for the gin, I stayed for the social revolution

Photograph of Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle

“Television, the drug of the nation / Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation,” rapped American poet and musician Michael Franti of the Disposable Heroes of Hipocrisy Hiphoprisy”, now of Spearhead. Could this literally be true?

I’ve just read the most amazing speech, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus by Clay Shirky, which you can also watch on Blip.tv. It begins:

A British historian [argued] that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing — there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders — a lot of things we like — didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

Shirky goes on to argue that when WWII ended, we suddenly had to cope with another social surplus: all that leisure time thanks to a 5-day working week and all those new-fangled gadgets which made household chores a breeze. So what did we do? We slothed in front of the TV. For a generation.

As we turn off our TVs and connect to each other, this cognitive surplus is creating things like Wikipedia. An estimated 100 million hours of work has gone into it. Yet this is but a drop in the ocean…

How much time do we spend watching TV?

Two hundred billion hours, in the US alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the US, we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads… People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is.”

Back in 1992, David Gelernter asked, in his book Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox… How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean, where the great public institutions of the information age were. Where were the equivalents of the great cathedrals? The grand Victorian railway stations and bridges?

Obviously Gelernter asked that before the web, and before Wikipedia and Google and YouTube and Facebook and… and… OK, some of those are commercial projects. But as Shirky points out, we could have 2000 new Wikipedia-sized projects every year.

The information revolution has only just begun…

I do recommend you check out the entire speech. Hat-tip to Daring Fireball via Garth Roxburgh-Kidd.

4 Replies to “I came for the gin, I stayed for the social revolution”

  1. Can the people who keep switching the names around on the Star Wars vs Star Trek/Star Trek vs Star Wars article and/or arguing about same kindly go back to watching TV?

  2. At the risk of seeming pedantic — could the word “pedant” be adequately defined as “a Virgo lawyer?”

    “Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy”

    Of course, all that aside, I am left wishing that the gin pushcart still came down the street – beats Home Icecream!


  3. @Simon Slade: I bloody knew it was “Hiphoprisy”, and yet there was this sentence in Wikipedia… My mistake was to trust Wikipedia over my own memory. And I’ve even interviewed Michael Franti — speaking more about US politics and economics than music.

    I’m with you on the gin carts…

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