Clay Shirky and How I Accidentally Broke My Television Habit

If you’ve been on the web in the past week, you’ve probably seen references to Clay Shirky’s terrific talk (or video, if you prefer) at Web 2.0 Expo. The bit that seems to be resonating with most people is his answer to the question “where do you find the time [for all this new webby, social media stuff]?”:

So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

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.

I’ve been known to bemoan the ubiquity of televisions in public spaces. I write this blog post from a quaint little coffee shop in Yaletown. And, yep, there’s a TV in the corner.

I’ve been taking BC Ferries a lot lately. I used to sit in the traditionally quieter upper lounges. A few years ago, though, they stuck TVs in them. As if travelers can’t be responsible to entertain themselves for an hour and a half. Now it’s that much harder to find a quiet corner of the ship (I’m not paying for that ‘Lantern Lounge’ thingie until they get wifi). Yesterday was actually an exception to my curmudgeonly complaints about BC Ferries TVs. The TV was showing the second half of the Manchester United-Barcelona Champions League game.

During the game, I saw promotions for the forthcoming Euro 2008 football (er, soccer) tournament. For the first time in a few months, I felt a TV-related twinge. “Ooh, it’d be cool to have cable and watch that”.

Live Sports and Lingering Twinges

Those twinges are rare. I think the web and computer games were wearing away at it in recent years, but living abroad seems to have finally broken my TV watching habit. And it was ingrained. I watched a ton of TV as a kid. Bring over a blonde and a brunette and I can re-enact entire episodes of Three’s Company. The same goes for university.

I download shows, obviously, but I’m pretty selective about what I watch. My lingering interest in getting cable revolves entirely around watching live sports–hockey and soccer. I’d gladly pay a small amount to watch a high-quality, commercial-free-ish sports event on the web, but the media companies can’t help me with that yet.

Today, my options are either a minuscule, unreliable CBC live feed, or buying NHL games on iTunes. For reasons I don’t understand, the NHL is only offering an occasional game on iTunes. What’s stopping them from immediately posting every game? I’d gladly pay $1.99 each to watch 10 or 15 games a year.

Still, I don’t think this sports gap will be enough for me to pay for cable next fall. Goodbye, broadcast television. It’s been real.


  1. Regarding the ferries: The $10 seawest lounge is SO worth it, wifi or not. No screaming children, no extraneous noise, pretty decent snacks & coffee, and if you get a spot by the wall, a plug for those of us with just enough battery power on our laptops to boot up — but with a comfy seat, unlike the “work stations” they have everywhere else. I may never again sit in the regular sections, but then, I evidently hate people.

    I watch a whopping 3 tv shows on a regular basis, and of course download them all… I found the ferry ride was just long enough to get in two episodes of House while nibbling on their little snack bars & fresh fruit. 🙂

    I broke my teenaged-extreme tv habit when I was 18 or so, and moved in with someone who’d spent his teen years half homeless, couch surfing and living with his friends parents for the most part. He hadn’t really watched tv in years due to his rather haphazard lifestyle, and my habit got broken. At my last apartment, when our shaw internet was installed, they said that even though we weren’t paying for it, we did have cable tv as well… but we never bothered plugging it in to try it out until after I moved out.

    I don’t mind TV, I just find most shows annoying, and prefer to watch it on my own terms… which is usually “while I’m playing warcraft” — it’s good to have two screens.

    The other night, I was watching House with my mother on regular TV. Commercials? Really? Weird. On the upside, it gave me time to do my laundry on breaks … but heck, I have a pause button anyway.

  2. I am getting increasingly ambivalent about TV, I am even thinking about deep sixing the cable. I recently found out that you can get two HDTV stations over the air in Vancouver, CBC and CTV, with more to come. I bought an antenna, a simple thing that cost 65 bucks over the web ( for some reason you can’t buy these in town!). I used a length of electrical conduit as a simple mast to get the thing above my roofline, and to point it at Mt. Seymour. Turns out that Hockey Night in Canada is really breathtaking in uncompressed 1080i. That, and my DVDs are all I really need.

  3. My wife and I got rid of cable in 95 when we moved to Vancouver for financial reasons (expensive Vancouver rent) and saved ~$500/year.
    The apartment we were in installed a satelitte dish and gave everyone free satellite for two months. We watched so many repeats of MASH and cheers and gilligans island that we were thrilled when they discontinued the freebie.
    13 years later we still don’t have cable or satelite and when we go to freinds houses with it we sit there and say smugly to each other “we could watch this at home” when they turn on a show we can see for free with our little rabbit ears.

    With two young kids now we see a time coming when we will have to get something, but its nice to have kids who have no idea about saturday cartoons and no idea about what the current marketting wonder is that they just have to have.

  4. Davin: I don’t know, and I’m afraid I don’t have time to appraise the issue today. Sorry about that.

  5. I love my PVR. But I watch mostly movies and maybe an hour of TV a week (if that). Having kids made me change my priorities, although I’d gone without TV before as an adult.

    My older child watches a little TV — about half the recommendation, with no commercials and only approved content. The PVR makes that easy. But I kept TV away till age 2 and I don’t plan to ever go beyond the screen allotment I provide now. We’ll see, I guess, but I don’t want my kids to watch an endless stream of TV, movies and computer games.

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