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:
... 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.