“Wasting time” vs. “I just need a break”

by bledsoe on April 30, 2008

In an article called "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus," author Clay Shirky, a consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, comments on what he considers to be the "critical technology" of the 20th century: the sitcom. He describes a recent conversation he had with a television producer in which he happened to mention the Wikipedia entry for Pluto, and the many people who spent quite a bit of time discussing, arguing over, and editing the entry in the wake of the recent decision that Pluto should no longer be considered a planet. The producer glibly commented, "Where do people find the time?" and that served as the starting point for the post, which was actually an edited transcription of a talk Shirky gave at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on April 23, 2008. Shirky's observations about how much "surplus time" people have, what exactly they do with it, and the implications for our society, are absolutely fascinating.

I happen to have a particular interest in this topic because about 13 years ago, just after the birth of our first child, my wife and I got rid of our television and we haven't had one since. [Occasionally a friend or acquaintance will learn about this and express interest, amazement, or, more often, confusion, but for the most part I suspect they just add it to their own mental list of things-they-think-are-odd-about-me and go on.] I used to feel a little self-righteous about not having a TV, congratulating myself on all the things I could get done now that I wasn't "wasting time" watching TV, but the fact is that there are a ton of available options for time-wasting, and not having a TV just means it's easier to take advantage of others. I'm also very aware that one person's idea of "wasting time" is another person's idea of taking a much-needed break from the daily grind, and that's true regardless of your particular time-wasting strategy; while some time-wasting activities are perhaps more healthy than others, I don't generally find the you're-wasting-time-no-I'm-just-taking-a-break arguments to be all that useful.

Shirky's article explores some of these issues in more detail, and includes his thoughts on how new internet technologies may play into them. Highly recommended.

[Note: Thanks to the folks at Techdirt for turning me on to this article.]

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