VSL:SCIENCE // Television is a heat sink

Something very strange happened to Americans in the middle of the twentieth century: For the first time, they were awash in free time. Thanks to a wide variety of economic and social factors, such as rising GDP and extended lifespans, the industrialized world suddenly had to solve the problem of leisure. What should we do when we have nothing to do?

Fortunately, the marketplace soon came up with an effective fix: television. All those extra hours were now squandered on soap operas, sitcoms, and game shows. The brain power freed up by modernity — what Clay Shirky, a professor of interactive telecommunications at NYU, calls a “cognitive surplus” — was soon surrendered to the mindless tube. As Shirky notes, “TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.”

But as Shirky argues in a recent lecture, television is no longer the time-waster of choice. For the first time ever, young Americans are watching less TV than their parents. So what are we doing with our leisure time? We’re surfing the Web. Shirky stresses the positive potential of this development, noting that great things can happen when that collective cognitive surplus is channeled into something useful. Just look at Wikipedia: It’s a vast encyclopedia created by people in their free time.

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