Monday, June 7, 2010

How do you use your surplus time?

My reading list for the summer includes Clay Shirky’s new book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  I probably won’t get to it until I head off to the lake on vacation later this summer but I already know where Shirky is starting from because he has been giving talks and writing about it for the last couple of years.  In a Wall Street Journal essay called Does the Internet Make you Smarter? he recently responded to the pessimists who claim we are getting dumber with this:

… the rosy past of the pessimists was not, on closer examination, so rosy. The decade the pessimists want to return us to is the 1980s, the last period before society had any significant digital freedoms. Despite frequent genuflection to European novels, we actually spent a lot more time watching "Diff'rent Strokes" than reading Proust, prior to the Internet's spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.

This idea that we spent the last fifty years watching television is something Shirky has been talking about a lot.  In one of his talks he tells the story of a television executive who said to him, about blogs and facebook and other internet activities, “I just don’t know how people find the time.”  And Shirky responded that NO ONE in the television industry is allowed to wonder that.

To be clear, I don’t think Shirky will necessarily bash television in his book.  I think he is simply pointing out that all of the time saving devices invented in the 20th century left us with a lot of extra time and we needed to figure out what to do with that time.  For a significant number of people, that time was filled by television.  I’m not sure that Shirky is saying there is something necessarily wrong with that per se, but there are now other options. One can now spend one’s time writing wikipedia entries if one wants. 

I’ll wait until I read his book before judging it.  But, like him, I do think the internet has restored reading and writing as central activities.  I certainly didn’t spend any time writing for pleasure in the 1970’s and 1980’s but the advent of easy blogging changed that.

I watch less television now than I did in the 1980’s but I also enjoy the television I do watch much more than I did in the 1980’s.   In general I’d rather read a good book than watch television but today some shows are as good as a book.  I recently (finally) finished watching the last season of David Simon’s The Wire.  I was watching it at the same time as some family members who live out of town and also the girlfriend of one of my cousins who lives here.  Talking about The Wire with them was like talking about a book.  The characters were as real to us as characters in a novel.  If anyone had told me that I’d be broken up by the death of a drug dealer, I would have laughed at them.  But I was. And I was heartbroken to see what became of three of the four middle schoolers we followed in Season 4. 

Why do we let ourselves spend our free time getting wound up in the lives of people who don’t exist? This isn’t a new phenomenon.  We’ve done it for a long time.  Before the advent of television people cried at the death of Little Nell.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, writes in the  Chronicle of Higher Education about why we like to spend time with fictional people.

First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, "Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you.

So spending our free time in the worlds of fictional characters isn’t necessarily a waste of time.  Of course, Diff’rent Strokes is not The Wire.  Episodic television tends to be pure entertainment and spending half of my waking hours on pure entertainment that I forget the minute it is over isn’t something I want to do.  Sure, I like The Big Bang Theory, but it’s one half hour of television a week and it occurs on Mondays when I need to spend time NOT thinking too hard.  It has its place in my life. 

I like to think that serials are less of a waste of time, especially when I can talk about them with other people and analyze them.  I’ve found it frustrating to read books that no one else has read and have no one to talk to about.  I’m more likely to find someone else who is watching Caprica than I am to find someone who read The Children’s Book.   Part of me looks wistfully at tales of how people used to wait for the next episode of a Dickens story to come out.  Now people talk about Lost – which I wasn’t watching.

Richard Beck, at N+1 Magazine, recently wrote about the connection between the serial novels of the 19th century and serial television. 

In the nineteenth century, serial novels worked hard to accommodate themselves to industrial daily life. As the bourgeois workday rigidified into something like a nine-to-five, leisure time became repetitive as well. Serialization allowed people to set aside time for reading at evenly spaced intervals, and thus helped to keep the alternating sequence of work and leisure running smoothly along. Interruptions in the publication of a serial work could be very upsetting. When Dickens failed to produce an installment of Pickwick in June 1837, his publishers sent out notices all over, and the July number included an explanation refuting rumors that he had gone insane and died. Apparently, readers could not have imagined a less catastrophic explanation for the interruption of their favorite novel.

Beck points out that we have now legitimized all of the Dickens serialized stories by thinking of them only as novels; perhaps we are starting to do that with serialized television too.  Beck doesn’t say this but I think that the evolution of the television series DVD, where a person can watch the series in its entirety, helped  this along.  But also, the serialized form in television has evolved.

…  it’s only in the last decade that critics and viewers have begun to think of artistically ambitious dramas as natural to the medium. We no longer treat them as miraculous aberrations. A change began to occur at the end of the 90s, as producers and writers went consciously looking for the internal limits of the serial form. They began to investigate the extent to which certain traditional elements of realistic fictional narrative—plot, the representation of individual characters and social worlds, etc.—could be developed in a multi-season work, and they won acclaim and got their shows renewed by advertising their ambition to anyone who would listen. Those series that actually did find what they were looking for, that managed to articulate one or another facet of televisual narrative to the fullest extent, brought the contours of the form itself into view for the first time. Three of those series are The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost.

In our discussions about The Wire, my co-watchers and I agree that it was possibly the best thing that was ever on television.  But there is no doubt that it took up a lot of time to watch.  Far more time than reading a book. As Beck says:.

Even slower readers are unlikely to need eighty-six hours to get through Anna Karenina or Ulysses, but that is how much time Tony Soprano spent explaining himself to millions of people.

If this is how we want to spend part of our cognitive surplus, the time we have when we aren’t consumed with doing the things necessary to survive in life with an adequate standard of living, what’s the harm?  For those of us stuck in offices all day, going home to our upper middle class lives, spending time in the fictional world of The Wire is fulfilling for all three reasons that Professor Bloom gave us above.

… [David] Simon got a whole city into sixty episodes. Each season focused on a new professional group—first cops and drug dealers, then longshoremen, city politicians, teachers, and finally journalists—and then used dialogue to arrange them into coherent structures. The Wire has more than 200 named characters, and by the series’ end all of them seem to have talked to one another.

And if you get too wrapped up in the world of serialized drama, according to Beck, you can be brought down to earth by the modern comedies on television:

To the dramas that said you could find satisfaction and dignity in your underpaid government job, The Office said No: You actually work at a paper company in the internet age, and your coworkers are mostly irredeemable psychos. (30 Rock has similar thoughts on coworkers.) To the dramas that went further, that claimed your coworkers were now your family, Arrested Development had an even better answer: Fine. But your family? These people are psychos too—in jail, in debt, in league with Saddam Hussein, even—and now you must also live with them, all the time.

Of course if you get tired of the world of fiction, you can turn off the tube and use your surplus time for something  else that you find entertaining.  Like surfing the web, sharing on Facebook or blogging.