Where’s Society Going?

Gapingvoid pointed out this blog post on Twitter. In it, Clay Shirky discusses the social sea change that we are in the midst of, and how it will affect us.

He points out that some sociologists suggest that the critical technology 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.

Then he goes back to look at the 20th century, and the critical technology of that era, the sitcom.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

Now that we are moving past the bender stage, we are starting to experiment with ways to use that free time to make it a positive, not negative experience. He uses the example of wikipedia. Wikipedia contains about 100 million hours of cognitive thought. We spend 200 billion hours watching TV in the U.S. alone. That’s 2000 wikipedias.

Oh, and he has a book, actually two:


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