You would think it was 1997 again, a year without smart phones or the social Web. Despite all the endless chatter about Twitter this and Flickr that and YouTube, iTunes, and Kindle 2.0, the good old boob tube is capturing record high levels of eyeballs: 151 hours a month of traditional television viewing. According to Nielsen’s new “Three Screen” report, video viewing on the smaller Web and mobile screens is comparatively a puny 3 and 4 hours a month, respectively.
So for most Americans, TV viewing is equal to a part time job, at just over 5 hours a day. Of course, with unemployment the way it is, TV watching may be a full time job for many more people.
What is the cultural meaning of all this? Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, has smartly called television a “cognitive heat sink” andsocial lubricant that helped America as a whole mitigate the effects of unprecedented postwar prosperity, and use up all that extra brainpower and free time created by a highly educated workforce andpost-industrial economy.
His thesis was that more of our free time is going to the Internet now, to the Wikipedias and YouTubes of the world, shaping a more participatory, creative and valuable mass culture. The reality is that replacement apparently hasn’t happened yet. American households have more than one TV per person. The TV habit contributes to childhood obesity, is a risk factor for depression, and isn’t so great for our carbon footprint either: plasma screens eat up more juice than the old cathode ray tube and home electronics may account for a fifth of a household’s energy use by 2020.
So here we are caught in a vicious cultural circle. It may feel good for half an hour at a time, but America’s not going to kick this depression until we get off the couch and start doing something.