I really enjoyed watching Clay Shirky's talk on Cognitive Surplus at the Web 2.0 Expo last week. He does such a good job at explaining how and why watching TV is no longer the de-facto spare time activity that I'm going to simple force people to watch it when they claim not to understand how I have no time to watch television.

See for yourself...

It occurs to me that people like me, meaning generation X (as we're called), are part of possible the last generation where hours of TV watching every evening was a truly universal activity.

Even if I had a Tivo, I probably wouldn't find the time to really use it.

I've always enjoyed Clay's presentations and this one is no exception. Carve yourself out 15 minutes of whatever it is you'd normally be doing and give it a listen.

Posted by jzawodn at April 30, 2008 07:31 AM

Reader Comments
# Dan Isaacs said:

Brilliant framing. I find myself watching less and less, even though I have Tivo and only watch what I really, really, want to.

But my kids spend waaaaaay too much time with it. I'm failing as a parent.

on April 30, 2008 08:09 AM
# sanjay said:

I too stopped watching tv actively about 18 months back. The only programs I watch are some UTV world movies, Deutsche Welle(German, the documentary programs are really good.) and some odd Discovery, TV5 movies(french channel)

There is no Tivo or PVR and TV Guide/EPG in India which means I can't save programs I like even if I would like to watch them someday.

I would encourage anybody to watch dw-tv. Available streaming online too, probably the best way to spend your time. You will be entertained and learn in that time..


on April 30, 2008 10:10 AM
# Stefan Hayden said:

speaking for generation Y, TV type activities will always be important. But the idea of "nothing is on tv" is disappearing because if America's Next Top Model or Gossip Girl isn't on then you have better things to do then watch TV.

on April 30, 2008 10:27 AM
# John said:

Thanks for the link. I was at Web 2.0 last week and saw Clay's talk "live" and thought his presentation was the best that day (I only went Wednesday).

on April 30, 2008 12:11 PM
# Brock Noland said:


I believe he is correct. I grew up in a very small town in Minnesota and as such when I was in grade school I watched TV 4-6 hours per weekday.

This changed the day we obtained a used computer. I still owned a TV and watched it some, but never to the same degree. Three years ago I gave my TV away and have no intention of buying another.

When I do need an `escape', I watch TV on my computer while doing something else.

on April 30, 2008 03:57 PM
# Aaron Schaub said:

Thanks for sharing this video clip. Using a Wikipedia as a unit of measure of cognitive effort is brilliant. The fact that 1 Wikipedia represents a small fraction of the cognitive potential out there is stupefying. I'll never look at the web the same way again.

on April 30, 2008 06:14 PM
# Ted said:

This occurs to me as smug.

You want to watch a baseball game with your Dad in HD, and discuss it with your friends at work the next day... or, you want to stay on top of Lost, you watch it with your wife because it's really great... this is an ignorant waste of time, dodging reality, compared with people who instead choose to invest a ton of their time writing up long missives on the (non..) planetary status of Pluto?

I don't begrudge those people spending their time how they want to. Good for them. I resent being told my watching a great documentary or The News Hour is my being ignorant, analogous to all of society being drop down drunk for a generation, that seems pretty asinine. absurd even.

That said there are for sure millions of people who sit through terrible nonsense tv every night, but to say all TV is pointless like your average sitcoms.. go hit the Random Page on Wikipedia and you'll see an infinite number of pointless discussions.

ones that don't interest me, might be better said.

i wouldn't stand up and give a speech on how those people are idiots though, i'd instead say, they like things that are different from the things I like.. isn't that ok? i don't like jazz music but it's ok with me that a lot of people do. no one would pay me to say that though and i likely wouldn't sell any books.

on April 30, 2008 07:10 PM
# BillyWarhol said:

yeah i don't watch much Boob Tube anymore*

However bOObies on the Internet! thass a whole nother Story!!


on May 1, 2008 01:06 AM
# Mike said:

I'm struck by his notion that as a youth he was 'forced' into watching TV because the Internet didn't exist. Couldn't he read a book?

on May 1, 2008 08:01 AM
# Kevin Spencer said:

I think it's just different strokes for different folks. There are some who would ask *why* you spent so much of your energy editing a page about Pluto on Wikipedia. Sure, if that's your thing, knock yourself out. Just remember that it's not everyone's thing.

I wouldn't question someone for editing a Wikipedia page anymore than I would knock them for being entertained by this week's episode of Lost. Want to read a book, take some photos, hang out with friends down the pub? Have at it. To take his "tone" and look down on those who just happen to like watching TV instead of playing Grand Theft Auto IV was a bit of a turn off for me.

on May 1, 2008 12:38 PM
# Dewan said:

To those that are feeling offended about their watching of television, you needn't be. He mainly only talked about sitcoms, which I would hardly think would extend to a show such as LOST and definitely not a baseball game- but rather the family sitcom which while enjoyable is hardly anything beneficial in any other way- and not particularly well made.

In fact he colored it as a necessary societal coping mechanism. It's not necessarily bad- it just isn't as necessary anymore. Which I agree.

on May 10, 2008 03:49 AM
# 2thyme said:

Insightful, thought provoking and terribly clever. I have to say, however, that repeatedly characterizing "Gilligan's Island" as the epitome of wasted TV time is simply wrong-headed. As an exercise, think of each of the seven castaways as being a personification of one of the seven deadly sins: Mr. Howell being "avarice", for example. Re-watch the series as the representatives of humanity's foibles are forced to interact under conditions of restricted resources. A very rich plate of social observations, indeed. Much more rewarding than a hour of "Fear Factor", don't you think?

on May 14, 2008 07:45 AM
# said:

I'm an old fogey of 74 who raised four kids with no TV. It was available and ubiquitous but I refused to give it house room. I hated TV with a deep, visceral, hatred. Clay Shirky has articulated the reason for my inarticulate rage and provided me with a valuable frame for thinking rationally about a hitherto irrational area of social commentary.

on May 15, 2008 11:05 AM
# Marcus Riedner said:

What I find interesting is that my life has, over the last few months, transitioned from a typical start-up company work week of 80hours/week to that transition period between companies where you have a ton of time on your hands. In that space I have found that I am now participating in not just ONE startup company, but between 3 and 5 depending on how much C.S. I have to spare.

Most of the things I am doing now, except for a small bit of part time work to pay my rent, are done in a media environment of produce, share, consume. I'm running the triathlon.

What is also interesting is that I am not making a lot of MONEY right now doing this. But the opportunities I am opening up are showing potentials to pay some hefty dividends. Far more potential than I would have just working, or just consuming, or just producing content.

It is in doing all three, in running that triathlon that I'm starting to see a new pattern of work/life.

on May 28, 2008 02:25 PM
# Graham said:

Superb. Articulated ideas that most producers of knowledge would be familiar with. However, I do wonder if the studio audience, not to mention the home audinece of Gerry Springer have a great deal of surplus to provide....

Also, I love TV. It keeps a lot of undesirable people off the streets....

Seriously though, I not sure that the idea that people pass through the Gin and TV phase is proven.

on July 22, 2008 05:29 AM
# chay said:

The cognitive surplus thing has been properly thought through already: Not suprisingly by a Sci-Fi author (one of my favourites) Neal Stephenson, in the Diamond Age.


I wont try to explain it, suggest reading the book.

on August 5, 2008 07:02 AM
# Thompson@Cheap computer said:

I love to watch TV but sometimes th etopics are so open that you feel uncomfortable watching them and make syou feel there is nothing except this problem left.

on February 15, 2009 10:31 PM
# Cheap Computers said:

There is a lot of potential in making money through working on th internet and people who know the way are heading the top.

on June 23, 2009 06:15 AM
# Chris said:

Where do I find the time?
At work, before I go home and watch telly!

I really liked this talk but one has to think, there have always existed alternatives to television. Creative people are naturally bored by a lot of it but I suggest that television could be considered as the first social network. Masses of people watching the same thing at the same time built a community because people could have a distributed but shared experience and then discuss it later - in person, not on a wiki. It is naive to think that television watching is just having content bombarded at you. Many people think and reflect on it afterwards. Even the stuff on Spike! You could say the same about music.

Clay may be right, it is up to the digital native generation to show what digital immigrants suggest.

on February 2, 2010 12:54 AM
# Sally Morem said:

First the nits:

It annoyed me when he said society did this or that. Society is an abstraction. Individual people do this or that.

Like one of the other commentaters, I noticed and objected to his assumption that kids ONLY watched TV during their free time. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, I watched a LOT of TV, but I also played outside a lot with friends and siblings, and I also played a lot with my toys inside. I also read a lot.

My nieces and nephews all grew up with computers, so they played with their computers more and with toys less, and probably watched somewhat less TV than I did.

Now for the good stuff: The speaker was correct; meaningful interactive activity is HUGE on-line. For example, I'm heavily involved in Facebook discussions and Singularity discussions on an on-line radio show. I've also posted a number of my essays on many subjects on a free on-line publication web site. Multiply that by millions and you've got a cultural watershed.

I think people will be inventing new forms of productive activity and play activity like mad in the next few years, and all this will accelerate already accelerating technology trends.

I hope the speakers studies these trends even more closely than he has. There's gold in them thar hills.

on July 7, 2010 08:40 PM
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