Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cognitive Surplus: Did TV Kill the Book?


WARNING:::This is a LONG POST. It's still pretty accessible. I put a lot of thought into it. I hope you enjoy.

I think about information a lot.
Every since last December I have been fascinated by notion of
using data for social purposes. I have envisioned maps of Oakland,
Detroit and Philly that display the sites where people were murdered,
the number of high school drop outs, teachers salaries, the mayors
salary and the city's budget. I am not sure what the exact goal of such
a map may be, and having a goal for it may not be the point. However,
I do know that looking at all these things together constitutes a
new way of viewing our urban centers. With 20 school age
children killed in Chicago this school year, we can use all of the new
tools we can get.

I was reminded of my urban wiki map idea when I read a
post titled, We Need Wikipedia for Data by Bret Taylor. I
immediately thought, we need an urban data wiki. It would be
a kind of urban xray.

Mel Blake touches on this a bit when he discusses the
cognitive surplus (the time that we have when we aren’t
watching TV) and how we are in the midst of a shift in
terms of how we use our time. He mentions how a Professor
in Brazil, Vasco Furtado, is making a Wiki Map of crime.
Blake calls it social software. He goes on to speak about how
we are shifting from being a society who passively consumes
to one who expects to interact, share, produce AND consume.

Because I think of information a lot, I am often pondering how
we use and evaluate information and how information compels
us to act. It has becomes clear that the ability to map complex multilayered
information so that both laymen/women and the well connected can
understand it, speaks to the power of information. JP of Confused
of Calcutta
recently posted on how information is power and that
it is bound to be shared and attempts to stop it are futile. He writes,

Once we had oral language, we had information. Much of it was passed from generation to generation without fear or favour. Then, somewhere along the line, people figured out that hoarding information gave them some form of power. And out of that came caste systems and class systems. And a few wars.

It was all about power. Not value.

When we moved from oral to written language, we still had information. But now we could store some of it, and share some of it. But people figured out, if only there was a way to control who could read and write, then the power would remain.

Along came the printing press. Same story. If only there was a way to control who could print and distribute, the power would remain.

Jonathan Franzen has also influenced this essay. I recently finished reading
his book How to Be Alone. In the essay “The Reader in Exile” he speaks about
the demise of reading and the rise of television watching. Franzen states,

"For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born, and we seem to
be witnessing, here in the anxious mid-ninties, the final tipping of the
The fact that both Franzen and Blake are wrestling with the same issue
which is what are we doing with our free time (reading books, searching
internet, blogging or watching sitcoms) and what does that say about
our culture? Think about it, how many times a week do we blame our
children’s behavior, poor grades or illiteracy on too much television
watching. When Mel mentioned that we watch 200 BILLION hours of
television in the US alone I thought, what an amazing piece of data,
how can we map it?

Back to Jonathan Franzen. The basic thesis of his essay is that the
book culture is dying and screen culture is growing. I did not want
to read those words. As a writer it’s both terrifying and depressing
to see that your audience is shrinking. The reasonable and immediate
thought is that if fewer people are reading
, then my work will become
worthless. I thought, maybe I should be making videos instead.
As a writer you already feel resentment when your work isn’t
well received, but for your audience to be shrinking as well,
leads to another level of angst. For instance, as a blogger you
want lots of comments and links and to spur discussions.
Some times it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The question then
becomes, do we write to be well received or do we write because
we can't help it?

Television is an easy target for criticism. Simply critiquing the
rise of computers and the demise of books is reactionary .

What we have to have is a vision. This vision will require us to
think about what kind of world we want to live in, be it analog,
digital, screen based or book based.

In many ways, blogging symbolizes the book world meeting up with the
computer world which is one of the reasons why its so difficult.
I have noticed on my blog that I am more comfortable wrestling
with the material than I am with promoting it after it has been
written. What I have learned is that if I want feedback, I have to
promote, interact, and do some general web 2.0 behavior.

Promoting is apart of sustaining. I work everyday at getting better at it.

One part of getting better at is listening and reading other thinkers.
I like aerial thinkers in general such as are Umair and Mel Blake
and JP. Ariel thinkers can synthesize various strands of thoughts
in a way that allows large groups to understand multlayerd material.
They my be doing so for the purposes of helping corporations
understand social media, or they may do so for the same reason
I blog, because they like it.

Reading their work is affirming because I am frequently told
that I am all over the place. Readers tell me, “, you are
doing too much” or “you need to focus” or "slow down".
However, when I read the aerial thinkers, I have to take notes
and reread their posts to keep up with them. It's affirming. I
agree that sometimes I do need to focus more on the exact point
I want folks to take away from the post. Whereas in other
instances, I am working on synthesizing various strands that,
ON ITS FACE may appear to be unrelated but upon a closer
look are connected in subtle, nuanced and powerful ways.
This is what makes the ability to organize and
present compelling data so powerful.

As a Black woman with survivors guilt, as a scholarship kid who
writes crack stories, I see it as my moral and spiritual obligation to
figure out how to leverage this information. Any suggestions?

Special note: I wrote this listening to Jay Z’s Lucifer on repeat.

Additional Reading
Death of the Sitcom Frees Up 2,000 Wikipedia's worth of
Cognitive Capacity

Gin Television and Social Surplus, the video


Nexgrl said...,
As you well know, I see first hand how the internet is chosen over a book daily. I get asked all of the time, "Can I read it online?"

I think that your map would be a great educational tool. I think that being able to visualize the dynamics helps encourage people to change.

Model Minority said...


The Librarian Speaks.


Thank you for plowing through this long ass*d piece.

Illaim said...

Hmm I agree and disagree (with no stats to back me) while the digesting of books is definitely on the decline, I would say that actual reading itself is maintaing its current level, rising or at worst, not falling off at pre massive internet immersion rates.

People who never would pick up a newspaper now routinely read Yahoo, Google, or MSN news. Those who never knew the joys of Britannica or World Book, are regular Wikipedia browsers. I can’t say anything for books themselves, as electronic book readers are in their infancy and yet to be proven as viable, but I can see a scenario for the art of “book reading” facing a demise.

I think you write because you can’t help it..

Model Minority said...

I think you write because you can’t help it..
Awwwish. Sweet bear.

People who never would pick up a newspaper now routinely read Yahoo, Google, or MSN new
Aye blood. Read Franzen. He makes IT VERY CLEAR that Yahoo is not Dostoevsky. On mommas.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

tv, radio, and teachers that dont read did

Aunt Jackie said...

my father has lamented for most of my life that the sign you're in the company of a true fool is the ratio between the size of his television and the number of books he owns.

on my life that's what i peep everytime I walk into a home. when I see a library i am impressed...flat screens in every room, not so much.

Model Minority said...

Thats funny, I ain't had a TV since july 07, Bklyn.

Do I want one, nods head yes.

Its odd, once you don't have it... I didn't have cable either so for the 76'rs and the Wire I was stay saying "Eh, do you have on demand, can I get on your radar, I would like to come over, I'll bring veggie lasagna".

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