I was absolutely infuriated reading this essay online: commenting on it is no longer timely , but timely has never been my thing. Here is the essay:
Clay Shirky's "Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus"
I want to teach this essay in comp class now: because it demonstrates really well several fallacies of argument.
Shirky compares watching television to "going on a bender." It seems at first that he is talking about the sitcom. He mentions I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, and Malcolm in the Middle. Later he mentions Scrubs. But in the first list he slides into Desperate Housewives. You could argue that that is a sitcom, but he does not. He cheats to get all of TV in his cross-hairs: to do it fairly would bring his whole argument down. For him, watching ALL TV is like being blind drunk, because both "dissipate thinking."
I do not think I would agree with his assessment of those shows if pressed, but you have to notice how he has loaded the argument against television unfairly. Arrested Development is not mentioned, nor is the Wire, or Battlestar Galactica, or Firefly. They could not be, because to mention them is to sink the argument. The argument is no better than the one made by a woman I met last week: "All television is worthless." "Have you seen the Wire?" "No." Well, there you go.
Shirky's alternative to passive TV watching for idiots is active participation, and his example is Wikipedia -- specifically the argument about the classification of a planetary body. Wikipedia is famous for its time wasting debates over nonsense (see the debate on how to identify the nationality of Olivia Newton John -- it is a big one). The classification of a planetary body is a particularly silly one, because it is an argument about what we are going to CALL a thing, which is a bit like discussing whether the optical illusion is a duck or a rabbit -- obviously there are good reasons to go with either one, but neither captures the whole thing. End of story. I cannot imagine praising that debate.
His second example of something to do that is better than watching TV is building a Wiki Map of crime in Brazil. But this is also unfair -- should we always substitute something civically useful for aesthetic pleasure (which, as Oscar Wilde proudly claimed, is by definition wonderfully useless)? It seems right, until you realize there is always something useful you could be doing instead of appreciating art. Shirky ignores the fact that people have genuine aesthetic needs.
His argument is also no better than my mom's when I was a kid -- it is a sophisticated way of saying "You watch too much TV! Why not go outside and get some exercise!" My mom just would not toss around the phrase "cognitive surplus." And like my mom, Shirky loads the terms of his argument unfairly to make his point. Because isn't going to a museum just as passive as watching TV? How about reading a poem? or listening to music? or having a religious epiphany? Now all of a sudden his claim that "It's better to do something than to do nothing" does not hold up so well -- is it really better to argue about the classification of a planetary body than to watch Kill Bill, which was genuinely one of the most powerful and memorable aesthetic experiences of my life? It is easy to dismiss the argument about the "cuteness" of Ginger or Mary Ann, but it is cut from the same cloth as the arguments about the nature of art: beauty matters, and a big part of the apprehension of beauty is being passive.
Shirky does not imagine any kind of rebuttal to his argument. His only "opponent" is the television producer, who can only respond to his point about the kinds of debate people have online with "where do they find the time?" She is the most obvious kind of straw man, a ditherbrain he can be superior to next to. There is a good debate here, but rather than make it, rather than take the opposition seriously, he cheats.
Ultimately, he argues that activity is better than passivity, which is an easy talking point, practically a cliche. Of course people are going to applaud that claim. But it is a false choice, since I think a lot of people watch TV quite actively -- not just in my sense (in which I am almost always doing other things while I watch, like working, engaging with friends and eating, or working out), but in the sense that people talk and debate about stuff like this, just like they do about the Wikipedia entry on Pluto. Has this guy been to Wikipedia before? Is is aware that there are detailed pages on television shows and better debates to be found about TV than the one about what to call a rock a million miles away?
In the end he backs off of his own claim, saying that maybe we could just devote 1 percent less of our time to TV and put it toward something else. But I think this is just sort of a fake compromise -- you can see what he really wants it for people to throw their televisions out of the window and start the revolution. He just thinks he is being subtle, when in fact he is being cowardly. Because he knows he is stacking the deck by making hasty generalizations about TV from a few loaded examples, peddling straw men, false either-or choices, and cliches -- crowd pleasers all. And I bet his first complaint about the sitcom would be that it offers easy answers to problems that are more complex in real life. He is more empty than he thinks sitcoms are (and I agree that most are empty on those levels), except he is ALSO not entertaining.