It isn’t hard to figure out why people were drinking gin. It is palatable and intoxicating, and a winning combination, especially when a chaotic world can make sobriety seem overrated.
Maybe you guessed that I was recently read Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus [watch Shirky’s TED Talk]. I read the first two pages, including the quote above, and learned a little bit about the Gin Craze in London during the early Industrial Revolution. Then I read a bit about how the Gin Craze subsided—sadly, for some—after society adapted to meet the changing needs of citizens and an environment profoundly altered by industrialization. And of course the analogy continued and underlies Shirky’s larger argument that technology, particularly open source technology, has changed our 21st century society in much the same way that the Industrial Revolution changed the society of the 18th century.
But the point is the gin. All of this heady nonsense got me thinking about what exactly our 21st century Gin Craze is, as intimated by Shirky’s argument. Is it Facebook? Netflix? Pinterest? Are we obsessed with celebrities or are we obsessed with ourselves? What the hell is it that everyone is getting drunk on these days? But the more I read Cognitive Surplus, the more I realized that there are gin crazes happening all over the place. In the age of online Communities of Interest, we can all choose our gin of choice and partake with only those who best appreciate our particular vintage. Shirky documents the exploits of some of these early online communities, and now, less than a decade later, we’re seeing the near exponential proliferation of their basic ideas and the restructuring of society hinted at by Shirky’s argument.
Every day millions of us take advantage of ride shares, meet ups, online communities like this one, and every day we contribute our own little bits and pieces of what Shirky calls our cognitive surplus. These newfound abilities to connect with people who share mutual interests has proliferated to the point that each of us can spend almost all of our cognitive surplus on one particular passion. In the same vein, we can spread our time among multiple interests, contributing as little or as much as we’d like. And further still, we can share our cognitive surplus as opinion, as is in the massive discussion generated by two text messages between a niece and her aunt. Maybe this is our new Gin Binge. Around a few tweets we see the crystallization of public discourse on a global scale around two text messages between two family members, something that was only a distant envisagement when Shirky was writing Cognitive Surplus.
But regardless of whether or not you agree with or take part in any of the many community Gin Binges, the new tools available to us to expend our collective cognitive surplus will continue to provide new avenues for expression and connection, both useful and not-so-profound. As Shirky explains, we have at our fingertips the ability to create collectively and individually like never before, but with the democratization of information and lowered barriers to sharing means the profundity of Apache is balanced with the triviality of Lolcatz. But, as Shirky says, “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.”
This post first appeared on CommunityManagement.org.