The Null Device

The passing of the television age

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, posits an interesting theory: that entertainment television, an arguably stupefying medium, arose in the 20th century as a temporary coping mechanism for dealing with a surplus of free time and cognitive capacity, a way for people to harmlessly manage free time they had no traditional uses for. A parallel he quotes was the explosion in consumption of gin (in those days a disreputable, highly intoxicating drink) during the mass migration from the countryside to the cities in Britain:
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
Television, Shirky argues, fulfils the same role. During the 20th century, a majority of the population found itself with something they didn't have before: free time. Since there was no use for this, it was more of a crisis than an opportunity, and once again, society turned to an intoxicant as a means of control:
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.
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.
Now, Shirky claims, society is figuring out ways to use surplus cognitive capacity more productively than by watching sitcoms. With the internet, people are starting to turn the television off and use their time, if not more productively, more interactively. This can take the form of amateur collective efforts such as Wikipedia or of pasting captions onto photographs of cats or playing multiplayer games. (Granted, in this early stage, even contributions to Wikipedia often are about TV shows, but this will probably pass):
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
This is not a passing phase, Shirky asserts, but a profound social shift; he cites as an example an anecdote illustrating that young children today are already in a post-television mindset, in which a one-directional consumeristic medium is seen as broken, rather than just as "the way things are and have always been":
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Will, in a generation or two, our descendents look back on the entire 20th century as an age of stupidity and conformism, sort of like the mythical Leave-it-to-Beaver 1950s writ large? (Assuming, of course, they're not too busy avoiding starvation or fighting over the Earth's remaining oil supplies or something.)

There are 1 comments on "The passing of the television age":

Posted by: Greg Tue Apr 29 09:36:09 2008

I love this idea and enjoyed reading the article after following your link. I wonder about the move to cities *preceding* the Industrial Revolution, though I don't think it affects his argument too much. He's trying to understand how lots of people are switching from tv-watching to produsing - I wonder if a better metaphor than "giving up drinking" might be the SETI@home project - all those spare cycles in households around the world coming together to do something useful.

Want to say something? Do so here.

Post pseudonymously

Display name:
URL:(optional)
To prove that you are not a bot, please enter the text in the image into the field below it.

Your Comment:

Please keep comments on topic and to the point. Inappropriate comments may be deleted.

Note that markup is stripped from comments; URLs will be automatically converted into links.