Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The end of television - now it's official

I never caught the TV habit. When I was a child we were too poor to have a working television (really -- people gave us TVs but they kept breaking), and after that I was too busy. My wife and I watched Star Trek - Next Generation in its heyday and I think it was great stuff, so I'm not opposed to television -- it's just that I rarely have time for it.

If our children were calmed by TV I'd use it as a pacifier, but the commercials agitate them. So they watch Netflix videos, including TV episode DVDs, three times a week.

We're a weird family, so I assumed television was still popular among the normals. It came as a shock seven months ago when I realized how little television my children's classmates seemed to watch. Since then I've begun to pay attention to the slow and quiet collapse of broadcast TV in America. It reminds me of the disappearance of public smoking -- an unquestioned bit of boomer life suddenly impermanent.

Now the decline has become official, marked by a Clay Shirky book and essay that's receiving deserved attention:

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus - Here Comes Everybody

... And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto...

... So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years...

I think we missed how much of the boom years of the 80s and 90s came from freeing up cognitive resources consumed by the Cold War, and what it has meant to return to a military economy over the past decade. Shifts in cognitive resources, such as 1970s entry of women into the workforce, have big impacts.

I don't think ending television is going to have as big an effect on cognitive resource deployment as feminism or the end of the Cold War, but as a social phenomena it's well worth a notice.

Broadcast television is finally dying. That's news.

Update 5/15/08: A well written contrarian response to Shirky's cognitive surplus thesis.


Anonymous said...

No matter what some postmodernists might say, it is wrong to blur the distinction between mass culture and popular culture. Mass culture is spending $400 to take your kids to a major league ballpark where they can watch overpaid celebrities whack baseballs with steroid rage. Polular culture is taking your kids to the park where you can join others in playing baseball. Mass culture is spending $125 for tickets to a concert by an over-the -hill band. Popular culture is making music with some friends.

Your post and Shirky's article implicitly testify to the importance of this distinction.

As Shirky says, "It's better to do something than to do nothing." Doing something is popular culture, doing nothing is mass culture.

The newspapers never learned this lesson and are in disarray. Can broadcast television be far behind?

Anonymous said...

The drug, television is not going to go the way of the news papers anytime soon. Mass culture is alive and well for the older generation.

What Shirky does do is point to a cultural shift that this present technologically savvy generation is leading. The diametrically apposed elements that embrace the shift are interesting because they demonstrate individual participation released from the constraints of profession, income, social status and the like, particularly with social software, and mass involvement, because of recent technologies, on a scale that is unprecedented.

What really jumped out at me from the content was the unadulterated view he had of the forces that change society. He touched upon elements that are hard to define, impulses that drive popular culture and feed shifting norms.

Cognitive surplus is a generic enough term to fit the myriad elements that might be included as part of the freeing-up of both physical, emotional and more complex psychological energy and impulses.

I do believe that it’s a surplus of forces that are more all embracing than merely the cognitive realm. The greatest challenge might be to further define what those forces are!

Regards, Alan

JGF said...

Great comments, though I need to point out that in Minnesota on a Sunday kids are free in the cheap seats. So even with food we can get by with two adults and three kids for about $50.

Of course the Twins are going to move to a new stadium where ticket prices will be five times higher, so the $400 number will soon be true. That will be the end of our going to the Twins games, we'll do the Saints instead.

Alan, I'm not sure we aging boomers can keep tv going. The problem isn't that we don't watch TV, the problem is that people over 60 don't buy enough stuff. So all those eyeballs don't generate much ad revenue, and without ad revenue broadcast TV can't survive.