Friday, July 11, 2008

On the wrongness of comparing television to a gin-soaked bender

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.


scott91777 said...

The guy seems to be one of those kind of people who, if I may paraphrase my bit about Dave Matthews earlier this week, listen to only classical music because it makes them feel sophisticated (because, of course, popular music is so much more inferior).

I am annoyed whenever I meet someone who says "I don't watch TV" because, as Michael Moore once said, "Congratulations, you've just alienated yourself from 99% of the rest of the country."

I had a co-worker once who was frustrated that his students no longer got references he made because as he put it "They no longer read... They no longer go to church... what do they do with their time?" Well, they watch TV, they listen to music, they go on the internet, they watch movies... and I've made it my mission in life to use THOSE things to teach them critical analysis of a text (who says a text has to be a written one?). I would much rather change with the times than be left behind by them (although, I must admit I do get frustrated when students don't get references I make... not to Dante... but to The Empire Strikes Back).

However, I must admit, he is on to something about our society giving us the free time necessary to, not only enjoy, but analyze popular culture. As I just mentioned, I do a lot with pop culture in my classes but there have occasionally been students who have trouble getting a grasp on this concept, not surprisingly, they are foreign students who come from places like Africa, South America or the Middle East. Places that have 'real' problems. It's not that they don't have movies or television... it just isn't that important to them... it's a distraction from hardships they have to face on a day to day basis. It reminds me of the story Dave Chapelle tells about his time in Africa where he was explaining his 'problems'(i.e. walking away from a multi-million dollar contract) to a man he had befriended there. The man quietly nodded as he told his story and, when Chappelle finished, he said "That's nice... I once had to eat a dog to keep from starving."

And so, yes, he's kind of right in that we do spend a lot of time both watching and examining our popular entertainment (which I think is at the heart of why this guy so ticked you off Geoff) but this is because we are fortunate enough to live in a culture that affords us the ability to do this and, instead of complaining about it like this guy, we should be thankful.

angelina ballerina said...

When did Wikipedia become a respectable source of information? I'm pretty sure I just spent the last several years being told to do my own research, and that the consequences of using Wikipedia for any valid scholastic project, though never explicitly revealed, involved methods of punishment that would shock even my medieval literature professor.
Isn't creative expression, in all forms, a source of introducing new ideas into another's mind? Whether you're exploring Kerouac's Big Sur or checking out life on Wisteria Lane, you're expanding your world a tiny bit wider...and who has ever considered narrow-mindedness a virtue (sorry, I won't watch The Wire; it's just a little too close to home for comfort)? So Shirky argues that one should act rather than absorb, but couldn't acting just for the sake of activity, especially towards, as I consider Wikipedia to be, a fruitless goal, be nearly as much of a "waste of energy" as the appreciation of creative media? I understand that some devote an excess of time to pop culture--I care less about the lives of celebrities than I do the personal history of the guy that runs my local pizza shop--but the faults of these fans shouldn't detract from the value of the medium itself.
As a final note, I must say--bring back the gin pushcarts! Man, those Brits had it so easy.

scott91777 said...

and, yeah, maybe there are more productive ways we can spend our time... but his example... of arguing over how to classify Pluto? It isn't a good one, maybe if he had suggested everyone coming together to figure out to create a universal healthcare program or an alternative engergy source... but, frankly, whether Pluto is a planet or just a big rock is probably actually less important than discussions that we have had about The Office on here.

Pluto is a distant object with no direct bearing on the day to do events on this planet... our discussions of pop culture are about how it is a reflection of our society and how we can examine society through them and, ultimately, isn't that more important?

I think I'm done now :)

neilshyminsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: "But it is a false choice, since I think a lot of people watch TV quite actively"

I'm reminded of an undergraduate class I took, where we learned about McLuhan and the idea of hot and cold mediums. To which my teenaged self responded "but aren't mediums only hot or cold because we were taught to use them that way?"

And someone gave this Shirky guy a book?

scott91777 said...


That's why I love that scene in Annie Hall where McLuhan makes his appearance. Film is supposed to be a 'cold' medium (I think) that is it has less audience engagement and, in that very scene of the movie, Allen is directly engaging the audience.

scott91777 said...

Actually, slight correction, I LOVE that scene because it's really funny (not to mention every professor's worst nightmare; Geoff, how would you feel if Bloom suddenly materialized in your class to and informed you that you "know nothing of my work")

But, after reading McLuhan for the first time a couple of years back, I loved it even more after reaching that conclusion.