The Mouse Behind the Television

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, has an insightful post into the free time which modern life gave to us. The fruits of the industrial and technological revolutions of the 20th Century endowed us with extra time that we didn’t quite have before.

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.

So just how much time are we talking about?

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.

100 million hours every weekend! By giving us the metric of 2,000 Wikipedia projects, we can see what the opportunity cost of watching television really means. How much more informed would we be if we re-allocated even a small fraction of the time that we put into television into learning something new, creating a sleek-looking web site that could save a part of our world from darkness or ignorance or hatred?

There’s something we all really are looking for that doesn’t live inside the TV. It’s a mouse. Shirky exlains:

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.”

That little mouse is a really big deal. My interpretation is that what the mouse represents is our bliss. We’ll never find our bliss in a television box, no matter how sleek and high definition it is. What Shirky calls the cognitive surplus available to us from our economic and technological innovations is the means with which we can follow our bliss. And we can use that free time, that cognitive surplus to create our own designs, our own projects and to collaborate with others who are similarly liberated from the opportunity cost of watching television.

The next time you plan on watching television, ask yourself how much you could do with that hour, or day, or week, or year of time instead? Could you make the world a more social and remarkable place to live? I think that I could. But only after I watch the next episode of Lost.