Television swallowed up millions of man-hours of free time by drawing people into a shared passive addiction. Prior to the age of TV, never before had such a large number of people done the same thing at the same time. TV paves the way for a level of centralized collective free time that, having been turned from passivity into active participation, produces a social explosion.
This vision somewhat fits Lenin’s idea of the historical mission behind imperialism: Imperialism provides a level of concentration of the means of production (“the gigantic socialization of labor”) that is essential for a socialist state. Imperialism is therefore a material preparation for socialism: the eve of a socialist revolution. All that is needed is to remove the imperialists from the position of owners and in their place declare the proletariat the owners. The concentration of the means of production can remain the same; imperialism has paved the way for this.
Something similar occurs in the transition from TV burning free time to social networks burning free time. TV engendered a “gigantic socialization” of mass free time. This socialization of time prepared people to be together en masse virtually, to experience a sense of unity with millions of people from a distance. (Earlier, newspapers were doing the same, but they proved too weak a gatherer of souls.)
Such TV events as the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Michael Jackson’s memorial service and other events attracted an audience of between one and four billion people. TV creates a field of weak social gravitation on an unfathomable scale. Single social fields with such reach are unthinkable in the real world of physical relationships.
But the scale of this social gravitation is perfectly suited to social networks. There are over one billion people on Facebook. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third biggest in the world after China and India. And its population will surpass these countries. (Social media users already experience an allegiance to Facebook and Twitter that is a kind of surrogate for nationality.)
Social networks are the successors of that sense of solidarity that was created by television. The volume of man-hours spent on social media is already comparable with those spent watching TV. The effort threshold for entry into social networks is no higher than that of TV watching.
There is, however, a substantial difference between the billions of man-hours spent in front of the television and the billions of man-hours spent on the Internet.
TV watching utilizes billions of man-hours of “passivity.” As a result, those billions of man-hours are simply taken out of circulation and produce nothing. This is lost time, exchanged for extremely weak emotions.
Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus pointed out the important social role of this murder of mass free time. When urbanization, automation or simply an increase in prosperity allows people to spend less effort on survival, a huge amount of intellect, energy and time is freed up. (In essence, Jose Ortega y Gasset describes the consequences of this very phenomenon in The Revolt of the Masses.) If this free time is not occupied with anything, a social cataclysm occurs. Shirky shows how at the start of the 18th century, urbanization in England made drunkenness an acute problem in London. Moving to the city, people began spending less time acquiring the means to survive. The new lifestyle freed up an enormous amount of free time and the existing cultural way of life did not offer ways of putting this time to use. People drowned their surplus time in gin.
In post-war America, the huge amount of surplus time, intellect and energy generated as a result of economic growth and an increase in prosperity was utilized by television.
On the one hand, social networks are clearly the successors of television in this respect: they also use billions of man-hours of time, energy and intellect. On the other hand, the Internet converts the entire, vast volume of man-hours previously spent on television from a passive state into an active one.
Personal time, intellect and passion spent on the Internet go in search of response. And response is only achieved through some kind of individual activity (television does not require individual activity). The content production and distribution – that is, participation, activity and interaction – are the results of this activity.
As Russian futurologist Konstantin Frumkin observes, on different levels of the social system, rhetoric is now transformed into dialectics, and sermons into discussion. It goes without saying that this transformation cannot avoid influencing a previously broadcast-based – that is, vertical, top-down – political arrangement. Of course, this transition is a terrible misfortune for professional preachers of the previous era.
Instead of billions of man-hours of passivity, billions of man-hours of activity are generated, creating a kind of general social product. Passivity collapses into itself, social gravitation comes unscrewed, consumption turns into emanation, a Big Bang occurs, or perhaps the birth of a supernova. What is important is precisely this moment, this shift of the aggregated billions of man-hours from a passive to an active state.
Such a change, according to Lenin, occurs via a revolution.