At the recent Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Clay Shirky came up with
an interesting idea. It centred on gin and television.
His thesis was that in order to cope with (or blot out) the changes that came
with the shift from rural to urban life, people took to drinking gin.
Eventually, they started to have more civic ideas and began to build libraries,
museums and other institutions that the proceeds of the industrial revolution
As time went by, we ended up with more free time, which was another huge
shock, and Shirky contends that television turned up just in time to deal with
that problem. He calls the spare time that TV soaks up our ‘cognitive surplus’.
Many books by successful people mention that watching television is a waste
of time – time that can be put to much better use. But Shirky has come to the
conclusion that interactive media blows the socks off passive consumption of
other people’s outputs. He’s calculated that Wikipedia represents something like
100 million hours of thought while Americans alone spend 100 million hours each
weekend just watching TV adverts.
He loves the fact that the internet allows participation. He’s not averse to
multi-player games like World of Warcraft. “At least people are doing
something,” he says.
When he told all this to a TV researcher wondering whether he had any ideas
that would make for good television, he encountered total incomprehension
followed by the suggestion that all this interactivity was just a fad.
But it’s not. The genie is out of the bottle. People can engage with others
who have common interests and collaborate on creating something new. Individuals
no longer have to be passive consumers; they can be producers, too. It doesn’t
matter whether that involves adding a crime pin to a Google map, or commenting
on a blog, or creating a YouTube movie.
We all like to veg out from time to time and that’s never going to stop. But
the feelings you get from involvement, creation and sharing are totally
different from those you get from just having stuff served up.
Think about how much you enjoy your work, your sport, hanging out with
friends or family compared with watching television. You feel better after the
interactive stuff, right?
The world is changing and the two-way internet is at the heart of it. It is
aggregating knowledge and testing it through exposure to public scrutiny. It’s
about more or less instant connection to people with common interests and to
information of relevance. And the information is relevant because you’ve
provided enough information for it to be filtered and prioritised before it
reaches you. Young people, especially, expect this sort of thing.
Recently, I mulled over with Talis’s Richard Wallis the issue of new students
arriving at university every year armed with the latest online skills and
expectations. Once there, they’re faced with disparate information systems which
would be fantastically useful if only they could be aggregated and used to
fine-tune the information they deliver.
For example, when search results are sorted by relevance, does the system
actually have any clue about what might be relevant to that particular student?
Of course not. It’s just a reflection of how well the hit matches the search
This doesn’t just apply to universities. Wherever users log into a library
system, the opportunity exists to provide a more personalised service. But
someone needs to push for it. And that someone has to be the librarian who
understands the users, the information and the potential benefits.