For the next week, you can catch my appearance on last night’s BBC’s current affairs programme Newsnight with author Clay Shirky, debating the social implications of new technology. It was a great discussion that was overwhelmingly positive about the Web and what it offers, but there were a few sticking points where Clay and I disagreed. I’ll expand on the key one here.

Clay’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, argues that we are experiencing an unprecedented opportunity to do things, now that our free time is no longer bound by the distractions of work and television. For the first time in history, he argues, kids are eschewing television’s passivity and instead are interacting via social networks, blogs, videos, mash-ups, grassroots campaigning and other Web-based phenomena. This, he proposes, means that we are self-actualising and have the potential to revolutionise the world. Bye bye soma, hello a whole new world.

Clay, of his own admission, is one of the few remaining digital optimists. Last night, I suggested that he had drunk too much virtual Kool-Aid (although I admitted that I am also prone to taking a few sips), and that he ignores some of the what I believe are the pragmatic shortcomings of the digital sphere (which I am currently researching): it encourages people to consume information that confirms existing biases; it has the potential to exclude those who don’t understand or wish to use it; it reduces serendipity; it has the potential to generate cognitive overload/burnout; it encourages a “cult of me”. The closest we got to addressing any of these points last night was to talk about dittoheads, or people whose reference for new information becomes narrower and narrower as they selectively consume what content they’ll pay attention to. This term has historically been used in other contexts, but we felt it could also be applied to people who consume a narrow amount of self-confirmatory content online.

I do believe that interactivity is generally better than passivity, subscribing to Martin Rees’ comment during his final Reith Lecture, that, “if you compare the Internet with television, it’s more interactive, and that’s a good thing”. It is a hugely effective tool. But I also recognise that what Clay uses to argue his case are examples of people who would probably be otherwise motivated to do something given the tools at their disposals and the circumstances they find themselves in. What about all those other people with the same tools and in the same circumstances who don’t really feel the need? To create Ushahidi or LOLcats (to use the examples Clay sites in his book), people need to be motivated and able. They need to have the drive and the desire. In addition, the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1985) proposes that they need to have a positive attitude, and the subjective norms, outcome expectations and behavioural self-efficacy are favourable. And that’s just one social psychological approach amongst many (see also Perez and Mugny’s Conflict-Elaboration Theory) that describes why people might do things. New technologies make it possible to do amazing (and not-so-amazing) things, but that doesn’t  mean they will happen.

I also don’t agree with the underlying message in the book that linear television sapped our motivation to do things and made us less likely to connect. TV allowed us to interact socially around common assets: that’s why TV advertising exists. As @ianbetteridge said on Twitter, “the idea that tech ‘until now’ encouraged u to be passive consumers is an incredibly myopic view of technology…TV inspires other work – fanfic, water-cooler and family talk”.

The thing I believe diluted the social experiences that  historically surrounded media consumption was the sheer proliferation of assets – the hundreds of TV channels, the sheer volume of different types of media, TVs in every room. Interactions around major media events – the release of a blockbuster film or a new Harry Potter novel, a big game or a festival, or even coverage of national and international disasters – inspired a sense of belonging because people gathered around them as they do now. But they are distinct from interactions to these things now in two major ways: time and volume. Pre-Web, if we weren’t all watching the TV or the event in the same physical space, we would have waited until we ran into friends at the water cooler the day after to talk about, or we were limited to one or a few people over a telephone. Now, because of online tools, we are able share and receive instant, real-time feedback to something with a lot of people. That doesn’t dilute the importance of either experience; in fact, some might argue that the instantaneousness of digital social interaction has its downsides (shorter attention spans, dumbing down, playing to the crowd). But I don’t think it’s cause to cry revolution, either.

One of the most thoughtful reviews of Clay’s book comes from Tom Chatfield in The Observer (Where else? I read it because it confirms my own biases). Tom sums up with this insightful line,

To accuse Shirky of preaching a panacea, though, is to misunderstand the simplest fact about the emerging technological and social landscape he describes: that it represents not so much a replacement of existing systems as a restoration of many far older and more intimate kinds of human relations.

Fair enough. The Web’s greatest power is the opportunity to connect with other people, serving our social needs in a way that contemporary society may not facilitate. But to give it too much emphasis is to dissolve our human agency in favour of the machine, and to imbue this agnostic communication tool with far more magic than it deserves.