The Ins and Outs of Cultural Consumption and Production

I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide since I picked it up on a whim in an airport (I purchased it to find out why) I’ve also started reading his blog. This guy is an impressive young thinker, and as someone in the under-30 writer/thinker/intellectual community I have to say he’s at least on my level, if not even brighter. Needless to say a request for a guest post has gone out to him, I will let you guys know when I hear back.

He recently posted his review of the new Clay Shirky book Cognitive Surplus on his blog over at The Frontal Cortex which prompted some thoughts for me on inputs and outputs in the digital age.

Lehrer lays out his interpretation of Shirky’s conclusion: that the anesthetic of the post-WWII culture was the consumptive escapism of the television sitcoms, and that in the digital age we are spending less of our leisure time passively consuming and more of our leisure time actively creating. Even when what we create is something as mindless and mundane as LOLcats, Shirky argues this is nonetheless an important evolution from consumption to production.

Lehrer argues against Shirky’s blanketing of all cultural consumption as worse than any kind of cultural production, calling for an examination of the quality of both what is being consumed and what is being produced and an appreciation for the act of critical consumption.

Furthermore, I think Shirky misunderstands the nature of cultural consumption. In Cognitive Surplus, the unstated assumption is that all culture is roughly equivalent to a bad sitcom: it’s entirely mindless and utterly passive. But I think this dismal view is mostly wrong. One doesn’t need to invoke Derrida to know that reading a text is often a creative act, that we must constantly impose meaning onto the ambiguity of words. (And this isn’t just true of poetry. A few days ago, I had a long chat with an adolescent about the deep themes of the Twilight Saga.) Sure, there is no lolcat to post online after a session of critical reading, but we have done something; the mind has not been squandering itself. And that’s why I find Shirky’s definition of creativity so peculiar and soulless: he seems to conclude that, unless there is a physical or visual residue of our thought, we haven’t dont anything worthwhile. I think that’s wrong. I certainly had absolutely nothing to do with the making of The Sopranos, but I’ve wrestled with the unresolved ending for the last three years. I’ve contemplated the meaning of Journey lyrics and ruminated on the implicit moral message of the show (or lack thereof). Shirky thinks such thoughts are the intellectual equivalent of a gin binge or an afternoon spent with Zack Morris. But I would disagree. In some peculiar way, if I hadn’t watched and re-watched The Sopranos then this sentence wouldn’t exist. (And I would have missed out on many interesting, intelligent conversations…) The larger point, I guess, is that before we can produce anything meaningful, we need to consume and absorb, and think about what we’ve consumed and absorbed.

Which brings me right up to my own experiences consuming, processing and ultimately creating.

We all consume a lot of media. TV, film, internet, print… we are constantly bombared. Most college-educated consumers have taken a media studies course or two and are relatively trained in the process of critical consumption. But even if it is all critical (which it definitely isn’t by the way, how could it be given how much media we both intentionally and unintentionally consume? But that’s another essay altogether). Even if it was all critical, you’ve still got an imbalance of input and output. And in any system (I’m talking about everything from the economy to waste management to weight loss) an imbalance of input and output is unsustainable.

Since beginning blogging I’ve witnessed the connection first hand. Blogging has become a prominent outlet. Not just for me, but for an entire generation of cultural consumers-and-producers.

Not because there is anything special or significant about blogging. In fact its exactly the opposite. If I were charged with writing books or scholarly papers out of all of my thoughts the outputs would never balance the inputs. With blogging you can fire it out there right away and get instant feedback from a community of like-minded thinkers. The barrier from idea to product is incredibly low. This post is the product of my consumption of Lehrer’s book and blog and all of the other hours of inputs I’ve been taking in all week. But the production of it took under an hour.

We are no longer content to merely consume. Now the thinkers among us are ALL behaving like critics: consuming, ruminating and responding. Be it on a blog or in a conversation, all those inputs need to find an output.

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