Kill your TV

“Where do you find the time?”

While talking to Hanno Schlichting earlier today about his fantastic efforts at fixing bugs and cleaning the Plone issue tracker — combined, the two of us have managed to resolve 250 bugs from the Plone 3.x maintenance release in the space of a few days — Hanno mentioned that he’d finally managed to unplug his TV for about two weeks after not having a TV for most of his life until the recent last few months.

It reminded me about the following excerpt from Clay Shirky’s speech on cognitive surplus — he’s talking to a TV reporter about his new book, and she asks him about Wikipedia:

She shook her head and said, ‘Where do people find the time?’ That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, ‘No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.’ So how big is that surplus? 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. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, ‘Where do they find the time?’ when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first — hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we’re still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity.

I’ve been television free since I was 18 years old and moved to my own apartment. That’s part of the reason why something like Plone could happen, a 250+ company worldwide phenomenon. Hanno got rid of his TV when he was 20. He’s the most prolific contributor to Plone worldwide.

Get rid of your TV. Change the world, don’t just sit and watch.