Andrew Curry writes:

The new media analyst Clay Shirky caused a bit of a stir in blogland last week with a compelling talk in which he described leisure time as a ‘social surplus’ which had been pretty much wasted over the past fifty years through watching TV. Actually, the argument was a bit more complex than that – his idea was that people had watched TV while we got used to the idea of having more leisure time, and now that we’d got used to it, we were starting to use bits of this time more productively, for example by building socially useful online applications.

There’s some interesting data in the talk. American TV watching (as a whole) takes up about two billion hours of time each year. And he calculates, with a little help, that building the whole of Wikipedia so far has taken about 100 million hours. American TV, in other words, takes up 2,000 Wikipedia projects per year.

Now the notion of time as a currency is one we talk about quite a lot round here. And it’s clear that there are different sorts of time. There’s work time (paid or unpaid); maintenance or ‘chore’ time (what you have to do to maintain your role); there’s recovery time (which is mostly where the TV watching comes in). And then there are the types which take you out of the work-eat-sleep cycle; ‘discovery’ time, or personal exploration time, and ‘identity’ time, which tend to be the places where personal roots are found.

I’m not sure about some of the social history in Clay’s talk, if only because, pre-television, there were rich social activities despite our having less leisure time (the huge 1930s ramblers’ campaign for the right of access to the countryside, for example), but I am persuaded by the underlying idea. It doesn’t take much of a switch from ‘recovery time’ to ‘discovery’ time to change the balance of social energy. This might not be online; book clubs, I think, would also fit the prospectus. But as he says:

It’s better to do something than to do nothing.

Futurismic has a video of Clay making his argument.

Photograph © Peter Curry 2008

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