The answer to “Where do people find the time?”

Clay Shirky, who I saw at Wikimania 2006, has recently given an excellent speech that answers the question “Where do people find the time?” that is oft-asked to people with techie inclinations. I’ll let his own words speak for themselves. Click through to read the rest of it; his main thrust is dead on.

So I tell her all this stuff [about Wikipedia], 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.”

His point is dead on. Watching television is a completely passive, dead activity, yet the average American spends several hours a day attached to the tube. So don’t look down on the techie who’s enamored with the Internet; at least he’s doing something. Even playing World of Warcraft is better than watching television.

I’m happy to say that I’m down to just a few hours of television a week (I watch Battlestar Galactica, The Deadliest Catch, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, South Park, and Mythbusters regularly). And I download everything I watch even though we pay for cable, just because I can’t stand wasting time on the ads. What have I done with all of that extra time that I don’t spend on watching television? I think my work speaks for itself.

16 Responses to “The answer to “Where do people find the time?””

  1. Cyde Weys Says:

    And this is probably as good as any a time to ask my readers: what TV shows do you watch regularly? By “regularly”, I mean you don’t just watch them if they happen to come on when you’re already watching. I mean you make a conscious effort to watch all of them as they air, in order. If you miss the TV broadcast of one of them, you make sure to catch the repeat or download it from the net.

  2. drinian Says:

    Doctor Who, plus a rotating list of 4-5 anime shows and J-dramas. To be honest, I think I spend more time these days tracking them down and discussing them than actually getting around to watch them.

    Unfortunately, I still have trouble finding the time, mostly because of the number of blogs I read.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    What J-dramas do you watch? My thing is I’m utterly uninterested in those kinds of thing when they’re in English, so merely being in another language and another culture won’t get me interested. It’s kind of like how all of my favorite anime series are scifi, while I’m far less interested in the daily life ones.

    And yes, I’m addicted to the Internet too. This is quite a unique age in human history. Never before has the average man had overwhelming amounts of information at his fingertips. Do you think, if television was just coming into vogue now, that it would catch on at all? I think the only reason television is as big as it is now is because of its cultural inertia, because it definitely can’t compete on a standalone basis with the likes of the web.

  4. drinian Says:

    Well, I think that passive entertainment certainly has a future. Good literature in any form, of course, does bring out a mental conversation with the author. Playing WoW all the time isn’t going to make you a more thoughtful person. And, for some subjects, a video or book can introduce a subject that would otherwise require a level of information arbitrage that most people simply aren’t capable of. Entering the workforce has made me appreciate that many jobs do cause people to go home mentally or physically exhausted, not interested in considering the world at large or challenging new ideas, with no desire to create something new.

    Worse, as I recall from one of my old political science courses, studies of voters have shown that most people are not capable of abstract reasoning. For instance, ask most people to define “liberal” or “conservative,” and they’ll give you a definition that actually describes the talking points of the Democratic or Republican party. (I suspect this is why we’ve declared so many wars on abstract concepts). So television does fill a need, although it also creates its own reality for these people, which is a dangerous thing.

    On a lighter note, I’ve only recently gotten into Jdrama, and just a few at that. Working on a series called Akihabara@DEEP, about nerd culture in Akihabara, and pretty soon I’ll watch the live-action adaptation of Honey & Clover. (Incidentally, if you want to see something totally out of your normal anime range, watch the anime version of Honey & Clover, which is fantastically beautiful. The live-action movie adaptation was merely fair). I’ve been warned by many people that Asian dramas are basically designed to draw you in and make you watch them through their end, like some sort of melodramatic drug.

    On an irregular basis, I also watch all of the usual 18-25 male demographic shows: Stewart, Colbert, ATHF, Family Guy, Simpsons, South Park, Mythbusters, The Office. I watch live concert recordings every once in a while, and have a soft spot for very early MTV. And then there’s re-watching my 150+ DVDs, or watching the 20+ DVDs that I own but haven’t had time to watch. And then there’s the Internet, and information arbitrage. And what if I want to do something else, like start learning Japanese again (I’ve recently been turned on to Mnemosyne as a study aid), or take up music, or grad school, or travel? It’s not where we find time, it’s all in how we prioritize it. TV is just one of those things, and while I will admit that I think our brains are hard-wired to be addicted to things like half-hour sitcoms or funny YouTube clips, it’s still entirely our fault if we’re not doing the things we really want to. The question that has always bugged me is, “What would I be doing with my time if telecommunications, computers, and high-speed travel didn’t exist?”

    By the way, have you seen The Prisoner? Probably the best television series ever made.

  5. Kelly Martin Says:

    About the only show that I watch consistently is Tim Yoder’s Woodturning Workshop. I occasionally watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, and also occasionally watch any of several DIY shows (New Yankee Workship, Finders Fixers, Wasted Spaces, Rock Solid). Other than that, we just watch the occasional movie, mostly classics like Notorious and There’s No Business Like Show Business.

    TiVo has really cut down on my television addiction.

  6. William Says:

    I don’t watch TV at all. It’s not some sort of amazing philosophical thing or anything like that, though.

  7. Gregory Maxwell Says:

    I haven’t had a TV since the mid 90s… I did the math on the amount of TV I was watching and was horrified at what a large portion of my life I was ‘wasting’ … Sure, TV was fun but other things were fun too… and many of those other things had some chance of creating lasting value, unlike TV.

    So… I decided to drastically cut back on my TV usage, but I soon found that even while making a conscious effort to cut back the future projected hours spend were still rather large: It was just too easy to ‘default’ to TV watching when no other activity was urgently demanding my attention. When an opportunity came up to get rid of my TV completely I took it. I have never regretted that decision.

    Someplace around here I have a portable TV which would be theoretically useful to checkout the news in the event of an emergency … but I suppose that with analog NTSC going off the air soon that won’t be a possibility much longer.

    I do watch a fair number of movies … but I don’t do the whole TV sitcoms via the computer thing, except in the rare situation that I can watch and am interested in watching an entire show all at once (or at least across contiguous set of days). That way the time investment is bound and known in advance. … and I’m not left dragging along for years like some junkie waiting for his next fix. :) I watched Serenity like that.

    … and, of course, there is the classic form of passive entertainment .. reading. But even my reading activity is somewhat confined these days…. I do most of it on planes, typically finishing a normal length novel in each direction to and from the west coast.

    One of the recent trends on the Internet that bothers me a lot is the needless use of video to express things which can be expressed perfectly well in text. I have no dislike of video itself, but the video medium forces me to accept the authors *timing*. It’s no exaggeration that a video of a speech can often take 5x longer for me to watch and read… and while there is a some value from hearing a speakers intonation, especially for speakers whos writing styles are not well conveyed in text, it would be surprising to see that additional value offset the time consumed.

    mplayer -speed 1.5 -af scaletempo is my friend a lot these days.. -speed 2 is even better, but some things are easy to miss that way.

    All that said, I think the talk of TV and sitcoms dying is probably a vast overstatement. Recent studies claim that TV viewership is at an all time high…. certainly reports of its demise must be *a bit* exaggerated. ;)

    I’d argue that Wikipedia editing appears to largely come from people at work in offices, as well as university students… perhaps leveraging the slack time created differential efficiency of computer equipped workers and students vs their historic non-equipped counterparts. ::shrugs::

    I expect that the social circles that Clay Shirky travels in include a lot of people who in past decades would still have been spending considerable time on things other than passive entertainment, things like Amateur radio, automotive hot-rodding, woodworking, siege engines, etc. ;)

    Kelly suggested to me that the real effect of the Internet might just be making all those niche interests a lot more visible to people outside of them, including Mr. Shriky. … and that the participation in those alternative pursuits may not have increased much at all. To me this seems like a more reasonable explanation of the evidence than the notion that TV viewership has been displaced even though it is reportedly at an all time high.

  8. Kelly Martin Says:

    There are several niche hobbies that have exploded due to the Internet, mainly because the Internet acted as “information grease”, either by allowing hopeful practitioners to share knowledge more efficiently, or by allowing suppliers and consumers to consummate transactions more easily. Two that immediately come to mind are swordsmithing and spinning. In the former case there were a tiny number of swordsmiths engaged in the craft and no communication between them; the Internet enabled them to reach one another, enabled others interested in the craft to learn more, and enabled those interested in purchasing their wares to communicate the interest in doing so. In the latter, the Internet enabled easier purchase of the raw material (fleeces) from those who had supply.

    I doubt, however, that in most cases these hobbyists, many of whom are becoming businessmen, are shifting time away from TV to their crafts. Rather, their crafts are displacing their regular employment, as the hobbyist discovers that there is actually a demand for their finished product at a price that, at times, exceeds the cost of purchasing the equipment and raw materials required to produce it.

    Wikipedia is a curious hobby in that it costs almost nothing to participate, and yields almost no opportunity for financial reward, even for the best and the brightest. Even the opportunities for recognition are limited.

  9. William Says:

    I’ve never considered that someone could have Wikipedia as a hobby. Would that in the administration thereof, or simply in making articles for it?

  10. Cyde Weys Says:

    William: Both. Some people focus on article writing, others focus on administration, and it’s the rare individual who can do both successfully. (I started off in article writing, but got diverted by the administrative side.) Different strokes for different folks.

    Check out some of the top contributors to the project. They have literally spent man-years on it.

  11. Cyde Weys Says:

    Kelly: Another hobby that has seen a huge explosion due to the Internet is amateur telescope making. It’s kind of funny that it’s coming back into vogue just as professional technology is getting good enough to begin to push amateurs out of the field forever*, but I suspect that vast majority of ATMers aren’t doing it to try to make groundbreaking discoveries.

    *I’m referencing that new NEO sweep telescope that covers the entire Northern night sky more often than every week. I forget its name. But its something like 10m stereo, so it will discover nearly all of the new objects out there while they are still far too distant for amateur scopes to pick up.

  12. Gregory Maxwell Says:

    Certainly there are those for whom the administration of Wikipedia is (one of) their most time consuming hobbies … but thats a fairly small group, no more than two or three thousands even if we include all languages and people who are not formally “administrators”… But there are a lot more people who put in considerable regular effort into creating content on Wikipedia.

    For some people editing Wikipedia is an adjunct to a previously existing hobby: If you’re actively involved in X it’s likely that you have the knowledge and interest needed to contributed to articles related to X. Alternatively, some people may be interested in a subject area but prior to Wikipedia there was no clear way that they could sink a lot of time into that interest, but documenting that subject area on Wikipedia is now one possibility. … and, of course, creating a freely licensed, freely available encyclopedia to help educate the world is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor all on its own.

    In any case, producing a decent quality Wikipedia article requires some very specific knowledge related to the styles and standards of Wikipedia as well as the technical features of the MediaWiki software. Once someone has invested the time needed to learn those things and gotten over the initial uncertainty about acting (I can really edit this? I won’t get in trouble?), they do seem to stick around and continue editing.

  13. jeem Says:

    Greg, your earlier comment about how Wikipedia editing is often done by office workers and students reminds me: many people edit Wikipedia (or, um, comment on blogs) when they want to appear as though they’re doing actual work. It isn’t foolproof, of course, but it’s easy to pretend that all that intent typing is producing “quality work”. (I suspect this is how the Japanese agricultural ministry staff was able to get away with all those Gundam-related edits before WikiScanner came along.) Few other hobbies can masquerade as work.

    Writing a good article doesn’t necessarily require specific knowledge of the Manual of Style or MediaWiki, though; if one person provides the sources and raw content, then a good wikignome can manage the rest.

    I don’t watch very much TV besides Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica. I do keep my Netflix queue pretty busy, though.

  14. T2A` Says:

    Mufuckin’ new HOUSE comes on tonight! W00t!

    Sadly, I watch about two hours of TV a night as a break from being on my computer (for now, at least). D: I eat dinner whilst watching, so that’s more like 30 minutes that’s not a total waste followed by 90 minutes of laying in the recliner and trying not to fall asleep because recliners are fucking awesome.

    I should go outside some time. But outside is mean to me. :[

  15. Maggie Says:

    I watch Bones every week. I’ll watch Heroes when it comes back, and Pushing Daisies as well. I’ll watch Mythbusters too, but not necessarily every week, since it’s not particularly important to watch those in order.

    I don’t own a TV so all watching is done online. I also work meanwhile–as a sculptor and painter I can work, albeit somewhat less effectively, while watching.

    I usually listen to audio books rather than watching shows, though, as they are, of course, much less visually distracting. I’ve found it very hard to actually sit down and read books lately because I’m so busy doing other stuff. Audio books allow me to be using my hands at the same time, and honestly except for a few parts I can do work just as effectively while listening to a book.

  16. Cyde Weys Says:

    I just watched the video version of this speech and it turns out Clay Shirky isn’t the person I was thinking of from Wikimania 2006. Just to correct the record.