walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Clay Shirky, cheap likker and bad history

I was really prepared to blow right past this, but I've been in a cranky mood for days if not weeks, so what the heck.


This is a superficially charming essay that purports to explain Why Blogging Is Better than Watching Gilligan's Island and how the Industrial Revolution has something to do with gin.

There are a variety of problems with it, but I'll start with what's right with it. There really was a point in history where London (and not just London) was truly awash with gin. I've read _more than one book_ on exactly this topic, which sort of frightens me, now that I think about it. I have a very different explanation for _why_ London (and not just London) was awash with gin, and why London slowly became a city in which people didn't go to and die quickly. [ETA the second quarter of the 18th century]

Here's one of the books I read about gin:


The other book I'm having trouble identifying.

[ ETA It wasn't about London specifically, but it was about awash-in-cheap-likker.


I have not found evidence of a review by me; it came out in the dead years for my website reviews and long before I was on lj. The author is British. ]

I also agree with Clay Shirky WRT his assertion that all this internet/web/blog/whatever stuff is, in fact, considerably better than watching Gilligan's Island and speculating about who is cuter.

Now, for the rest of it.

(Q1) Why were there so many new/young people in London all at once?
(A1) Overpopulation in the countryside.

Why was there overpopulation in the countryside? Pick one. They'd wiped out transmission of rudimentary family planning practice over the previous century or so. They'd reoriented sexual activity away from group "outercourse" towards one-on-one penetrative stuff. There was this thing with the commons that people get very excited about. There were some amazingly good years in terms of crops because of climate trends. Etc.

(Q2) What do unattended young people tend to do?
(A2) Drugs.

In this case, gin. Beer was a staple of the British diet at the time (we're talking pre-coffee, pre-tea in terms of poor-people consumption). Beer was something you drank. Maybe the only thing you drank. Wine was for rich people. Water was dangerous. Usually, you drank small beer, which had less alcohol in it than even current Lite beers. And you had it for breakfast, as well as every other time of day. When gin came along, there wasn't a good understanding that the wollop packed by gin was a function of volume, so people drank it the way they drank beer (implausible, but not really that far off the mark). People had been doing similar with wine (who could afford to), which had been problematic enough. With gin, hoo boy.

(Q3) What happens when you have a whole lot of inebriated, alcoholic people densely packed in?
(A3) They die.

And they did. In droves. They died of malnutrition. They died of traffic accidents (yeah, _those_ predate automobiles. Believe me.). They died of disease. They died of stupid, pointless fights. They died of STDs. You name it. They died of it. Their children didn't grow up to reproduce because of similar. London had growth from immigration; if they hadn't had in-migration, they would have been shrinking because that was one unbelievably lethal city.

(Q4) What kind of crazy, fucked up government would unleash this tide of alcohol on itself?
(A4) There's a _great_ question.

I'll just post, in toto, my review, which can also be found here:


[ Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, by Jessica Warner

I picked it up in paper, and was mildly stunned to notice the other book out in hardcover that covers a lot of the same ground, right down to the comparison with modern-day efforts to regulate drugs. Warner’s analysis is nothing new, which is a pity, because she presents information that suggests other parallels I had never noticed before: drugs that cause irrational behavior on the part of users and reformers tend to be things that the government was until recently encouraging the development of in the interest of agriculture/land-owners. And a lot of what she identifies as marking a new craze could be used to describe our increasingly negative interaction with junk food/fast food/carbs/etc.

That last chapter aside, however, Warner’s prose is readable, and she did a great job of presenting the history in a gender-balanced way. She worked to tie the various and varying economic issues (correlating harvest size, for one, and revenue needs on the part of the government to wage war, for another). She presented all the information needed to present a cogent argument for how to best regulate drugs (identify the one(s) most people think are harmless, make licensing cheap to get but require licensees to keep their patrons on their best behavior, and make everything else very, very, very illegal and then assiduously enforce it all) but stopped short of laying it out in the final chapter, which I regard as admirably restrained. ]

So. It's been a few years, but basically, same reason we're awash in HFCS and Type-2 Diabetes: agricultural policy gone horribly awry.

(Q5) How did it get fixed?
(A6) Government regulation.

I realize that a lot of people -- including a lot of techie people, some of whom blog -- would really like to completely ignore the role of government in (a) creating these problems and (b) managing/solving these problems. Whatever. They're wrong. Bad history.

Oh, and gin? Not very much like television. I know _no one_ who has gotten the DTs from Gilligan's Island or any other kind of television (altho some visuals cause seizures in some people, I know of no visuals, or amount of visuals, that can cause seizures in anyone, which alcohol, IIRC, can). Television is the kind of drug you regulate _toward_. Probably, the intartubes/webs/blogosphere is, too. While crime maps are pretty cool, and I'm a big fan of the wiki-anything, a lot of what's going on is trading paper reference material for much more expensive electronic storage (you would not freaking believe Google's power bill, apparently), and trading talk-to-the-expert for the-masses-write-down-what-they-know-and-are-68%+ of an expert (at times, that plus makes them way better than the best expert, and that's pretty damn cool).

While the looking-for-the-mouse story is charming, it is not compelling. I've got a whole laundry list of things I do less of because I blog or read stuff online, including, but not limited to, hiking, cooking, and reading books. It turns out that online stuff is nice for me, because it's marginally sociable and interruptible, which at this point in my life is Teh Awesome. Flip side, I'm slow to arrange F2F socializing as a result, and that I'm not convinced is a good thing.

The biggest problem I have with Clay Shirky's essay is its massive emphasis on abstraction. He talks about "cognitive surplus", but there are a ton of people from a century or so back who would take one look at all of us madly typing away and just shake their head and go back to work. What we have, here, is massive gear slippage. We don't have cognitive surplus. We have muscular shortage. Shirky talks about doing, but it's a weird kind of doing that would make whittling look incredibly active.

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 1 comment