TV and social surplus

Friday 2 May 2008

Clay Shirky has a knack for putting his finger on it. In Gin, Television, and Social Surplus (subtitled by the slug as Looking for the Mouse), he points a finger squarely, humorously, and accurately at television as a huge time sink that people don’t even realize they are a part of. You should read the whole thing because it is wise and entertaining, but here’s the quantitative eye-opener: he figures that all of Wikipedia represents 100 million hours of work, which is a huge amount, but that in the U.S. we watch 200 billion hours of TV each year. In other words, if we stopped watching TV, not only would we have plenty of time to create Wikipedia, we could create 2000 of them every year!

I’ve often had people ask me how I have the time to do whatever side project I’m working on at the moment. Then the lunch table goes back to the usual discussions: did you see the game? how about last night’s episode of E.R.? Those are fine ways to spend time, but at least don’t be surprised that others have found other ways. I’m not trying to sound like a Luddite (named for a fellow Ned), I like TV too. I look forward to 30 Rock like nobody’s business.

But if I sit and watch for too long, I get antsy, I want to be doing something. This is Shirky’s second point: that TV is a one-way medium, and that computers and the internet have shown us the power of two-way interaction.

It’s a great essay — turn off the TV and go read it, then write something.

Comments

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Chris Nelson 12:21 PM on 3 May 2008

When I moved into my current apartment three years ago, I omitted the television from my life. Since then I have read hundreds of books from the the local library, spent more time at the gym getting in shape, met my neighbors and enjoyed more of life. But it freaks people out to learn that I don't have a TV. :D

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patrick 2:17 PM on 3 May 2008

I love TV, at least since BSG and LOST started, but I am with you - sometimes I need to be doing something. I read also. Oh and play many many hours of video games. I am a great consumer. Did I mention I am at school 8 hours a day? Well, I don't have a job, so I guess I do have more time than most :) But anyway, I think that both one-way interaction and two-way are important. TV is what I watch, usually when I don't really have the energy to do anything else. If I try to do too much I usually find that the next day I'm not good for much (can't think of solutions to simple problems etc). So it's good to do some things and watch or read some things as well.

I limit TV usage to 1 or 2 hours a night, which I suppose still means I watch on average of 10 hours a week. It adds up, but if I felt like it was time wasted I would stop. I can't stand wasted time :) Fortunately, I chalk most of my consumerism into the "pop culture research" category. What I learn there can be used in my writing or game design.

That said, I don't think I would miss tv too much. When BSG and Lost finish, I may stop watching for a while unless something else really good comes along. I have plenty of other things to do, it can be so hard to juggle everything sometimes.

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Daniel 4:05 PM on 3 May 2008

We've been essentially TV-less for over 5 years now. We have a TV but all it does is video games (go Wii go!) and the occasional movie. The only channels that would be worthwhile might be Discovery, History & Food Network but they're hardly worth the cost of admission for cable.

Freaks telephone surveys out to no end that our weekly TV viewing is zero.

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bobDope 5:24 PM on 3 May 2008

It wasn't easy juggling a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but I still managed to fit in 8 hours of TV a day....

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David Boudreau 7:57 PM on 8 May 2008

A great read indeed... when he says gin/sitcoms are like benders, this reminded me of the first phonograph technology and how the favored content of recorded speeches weren't nearly as popular/industry-inducing as recorded music, of all things, turned out to be in the end- how non-productive. Maybe podcasts are a sign we're recovering from that particular bender? Hm we've had talk radio for a long time.

TV is often considered "social homework" by many. In recent years I have gotten so sick of what I call DOI or the "Dialog of Insults" in so many shows (e.g. House, Navy CSI, Bones). They can't utter two lines without saying something rude. This helps me a lot to actively turn off the TV. CNN has really gotten so bad, even Chinese citizens hate it (or so they've been led to believe by their state-run media, but ironically they're not wrong).

At least American Idol is fairly interactive with the audience. Recently I've modded an Xbox to be able to watch YouTube and news vids, which is great. TV can help to make mundane activities like eating, flossing and brushing a more productive use of that time.

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