A screen without a mouse: On TV bashing

Posted on | June 1, 2008 | 7 Comments

**This post is also a response to the Passion Quilt Meme. I tag Supervalent Thought, Purse Lip Square Jaw, Unemployed at Last!, and tactical.**

Some people will have seen that one of UQ’s most respected television scholars made the editorial of Brisbane’s Courier Mail on Friday, after giving an address to The Sopranos conference at Fordham University this past fortnight. Terry Flew has a fitting response to the story here. This kind of thing is par for the course in cultural studies, and if conference attendance is now gaining the same scrutiny as ARC funding in the tabloid press, I should probably prepare myself for Melbourne in November where I’ll be presenting a co-authored paper called “Ordinary Australians? Aspiration, commodity fetishism and masculinity in Underbelly”. I can only hope for the same amount of column space Jason’s work received.

But coming on top of Jill Walker’s effusive synopsis of this talk by Clay Shirky, I’m starting to wonder how many other people believe the claim that watching television has been the ‘collective bender’ of the 20th century; that we are only now just starting to wake up to the vast cognitive surplus that television (and previously gin) consumption has ‘masked’. According to Shirky, who laments the many hours he spent watching Gilligan’s Island as a kid, television sitcoms have been the social lubricant of the past century, ‘without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise’. He finds it regrettable that ‘every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list’. He also argues shows like ‘Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat’.

I don’t even know how to engage with this last statement, but as I wrote in response to Jill’s post, it seems incredible to me that this kind of rhetoric is necessary to say why Web 2.0 is new or different or important. The argument that ‘it’s better to do something than to do nothing’ is spurious and lacks all context; nor does it reflect what we already know about the ways people use and manipulate and engage with broadcast media. Previous mass communication theories may well have characterised television as a one-to-many platform–what others might choose to describe as a ‘sit back’ versus a ‘lean forward’ medium. But even these approaches overlook the realities of domestic media consumption revealed over decades of cultural studies: how it is so often a background companion to the routines of household labour, when it isn’t an excuse for many subtle and explicit forms of relationship building, or a closely observed entertainment platform with its own rituals and rewards for interaction.

Shirky’s argument does a disservice to those involved in developing and improving genuinely useful online endeavours by pitching their efforts against the platforms available to creative people in previous generations. He also pretends there hasn’t been an evolving sophistication in television production and consumption. Shows like The Simpsons have demonstrated this for many commentators in the past, but Ugly Betty, My Name is Earl, 30 Rock and Extras do the same for audiences today.

Relating the leisure pursuits of a small minority of educated and highly networked early adopters to the prospect of far broader social empowerment seems to imply that being able to make a lolcat is a step towards taking control back from the structural constraints of everyday life (ever tried explaining a lolcat to someone who doesn’t read blogs? i.e., still the majority of people? It will give you a sense of the significance of these ‘typical’ examples of online literacy). The notion of ‘cognitive surplus’ in leisure time actually risks taking capitalism’s productivity and efficiency imperatives to new extremes, part of the pernicious influence of the Getting Things Done industry as it enters the private sphere. But the complicity of Web 2.0 celebrities with capitalist logic is worth a book rather than a blogpost.

Perhaps the thing that remains inconvenient for the current bunch of web prophets is that unlike internet access and participation, television is cheap. Poor people can watch it, and those that do so regularly ‘consume’ television in ways that are as sophisticated and as knowledgeable as people who currently hold the cultural and educational power to manipulate present forms of media production and performance.

I bet that if you asked those who aren’t online regularly what their idea of ‘participation’ meant it would incorporate their work, their friendships, the support they offer their families and maybe also the sporting team they play in or follow. In short, banal civic activities within a recognisable public sphere that television also serves. To them, using the internet to make the most of their time after all those commitments have been met might well be a bizarre notion.

Shirky points to an optimistic future. He cites the wisdom of a four year old who is habituated to having a mouse attached to her screen as evidence for the naturalness of interactivity. His inspirational conclusion is that:

We are going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?”

Like the DIY ethos of other prominent bloggers, this kind of language troubles me, and I’m not sure how best to argue with it. So for the moment I’ll just focus on that the same little girl Shirky refers to. I hope that despite the seductiveness of new media, she will also be allowed to indulge in the most time-wasting and apparently passive of all communication platforms, the novel. I hope that she may grow up to recognise the echoes of Steinbeck deployed in the passage above. I hope that knowledge allows her to contemplate how America’s subsequent affluence has been distributed unevenly. And I hope that she will be able to discern the unique brands of spin that currently feed new and old media alike, regardless of the screen she’s using.


7 Responses to “A screen without a mouse: On TV bashing”

  1. jean
    June 2nd, 2008 @ 6:37 am

    Oh, hear, hear.

  2. Laura
    June 2nd, 2008 @ 10:02 am

    Passivity (or better, receptivity) to imaginative experience is a fine thing, actually, and necessary. How can you edit the Wikipedia article on Gilligan’s Island if you haven’t taken it in first? πŸ˜‰

  3. Jason W
    June 2nd, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    I agree that a passive or receptive approach to various forms of art/culture is actually necessary.

    But the thing I’d like to point out is that, as we know, this kind of discourse has a long history. I hope that Laura will forgive me for going back on my promise not to pile in on blogs gratuitous scholarly references πŸ˜‰ But this has been noted for years – William Boddy pointed out back in 1994 that new media technologies are recurrently promoted as “active” in relation to television’s (feminised)passivity. The Gin stuff seems out of the box, until your remember Andreas Huyssen in “After the Great Divide” talking about the conflation of mass culture and the feared crowd from the nineteenth century onwards.

    The “heat sink” metaphor is new, and especially horrible – crudely, reductively instrumentalising decades of global cultural history. I’m sorry, but Shirky needs a talking-to.

    The question is, if we know all this, and people have pointed out so many times, why do we keep hearing it with every generation of new technology?

    And why do we find otherwise sensible scholars endorsing it?

  4. jean
    June 2nd, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

    I have had conversations about the questions Jason raises with various people over the last couple of months, around a number of media-related issues — why hasn’t any part of the cultural studies + media + everyday life message gotten through? Why are we still having the same arguments?

    Just to be silly for a moment, my first thought is always to simply blame America.

    Maybe we can put it all down to the triumph of media effects over cultural studies in the US Academy, whose legitimacy is amplified via the interest that the mainstream media have in believing that they have effects (positive for your own medium, negative for all the newer or more electronic ones), rather than uses…

    And of course the idea of ‘cognitive surplus’ only works if:

    – television audienceing is a complete absence of brain function; and
    – engagement with media in everyday life was and can continue to be completely weightless (so while you’re ‘not thinking’ you’re also not doing ‘anything’)

    Both of which propositions (and more besides) we ‘know’ to be complete nonsense.

    However, since we aren’t a positivist social science ‘discipline’, do ‘we’ (cultural studies, and the kind of media studies that has no truck with media effects) have any way of demonstrating or performing an agreed position (as opposed to lots and lots of different perspectives) that might counter any of that?

    I’m not sure, and I don’t know what to do about the recurrence of these assumptions (including, as you say, in the work of otherwise perfectly sensible and quite clever scholars) other than sigh, feel despondent, and explain it all again.

  5. glen
    June 3rd, 2008 @ 12:59 am

    speaking of lolcats…

    here is a lecture I gave a few weeks ago full of good ol’ lolcat:

    of course in the lecture slides you miss the awesome story about ‘collective intelligence’ and impressing girls in the bookshop when showing them my name next to Freud’s in the index of Wark’s Gamer Theory

  6. Jason W
    June 3rd, 2008 @ 8:39 am

    Did that work, Glen? I mean, were the girls impressed? Nice choice with the alphabetical order of your surname, anyway!

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