Saturday, May 2, 2009

Cognitive surplus

At every Social Security hearing I typically ask the claimant to tell me how he or she spends the majority of their waking hours. The point is to discover what activities the person actually does and match that, if possible, to the objective evidence of their impairments. In the vast majority of cases the person reports they spend anywhere from 6 to 15 hours per day in front of the television. I sometimes ask what shows they watch, but most cannot recall. I follow up by asking if they “do” something else during the day, but most seem too believe watching TV qualifies as doing something. I don't agree.

Since I don't believe that passive, mindless TV viewing constitutes doing anything, I persist in asking about other activities like house cleaning, pets, hobbies and such. Second and third on the list of activities these questions solicit are reading (usually the Bible) and playing on my computer (almost always games). In time spent per day nothing comes close to the time spent before the TV set.

I'm horrified that someone would come to the belief that watching TV constitutes an activity and that it's acceptable to “do” it for hours on hours daily. The sad fact is that even non-disabled people in America watch a lot of TV every day. According to the 2006 Nielson survey the average American watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of television each day.
 99% of all American homes have at least one TV, in fact, only 19% have just one. 50% of American homes have three working televisions or more. In 1975 only 11% had more than three TVs and 57% had only one.

So it's socially acceptable to watch a lot of TV. I'm convinced that many people also use TV as a sort of sedative, essentially a pain medication akin to hypnotism. TV by design distracts people from their everyday existence. For a person with problems, distraction is not only good, but necessary. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to entertainment. I know that there are at least a few good shows on TV that provide quality entertainment. What I'm puzzling about here is not the person who turns on the TV with a specific goal, say to watch a sports event or a favorite show.

What would happen, I have to wonder, if people did not have the ability to use TV as a mindless time waster? I assume they would do something else to distract themselves. Some would read, some would find a hobby within their capacity, some go for a walk.

This leads me to the conclusion that TV is actually increasing the amount of physical and mental disability in America. People in general don't enjoy suffering and will do what they can to avoid thinking about their problems and pains. If there were no TV at least some substantial number of people would do something else with their time. I believe at least some percentage of this time would be used productively.

As proof of this assertion I offer Wikipedia. It has been calculated that the current state of Wikipedia took a collective 100 Million hours to create. No one paid for any of this work or even solicited people to do the work except in the most general way. Yet there it is, a 21st Century electronic encyclopedia that is actually pretty reliable, created by folks in their spare time.

Some have dubbed this internet phenomenon “cognitive surplus.” The concept is that people as a whole have a lot of time in the day where they are not actively using their minds to do anything remotely productive. For example this weekend Americans will spend 100 Million hours watching TV ads alone. If we all gave up watching just the ads we could create 50 Wikipedias or their equivalent a year.

I admit to being prejudiced in this area. When we moved to St. Louis I completely gave up TV. I don't miss it much. I admit my use of the internet has increased for things like checking the weather and to watch selected parts of the Daily Show. Even when I do have the chance to watch, I generally choose not to do so. Recently we did retrieve our TV from Syracuse, but only so we could watch movies.

So join me and kill your TV, or at least strangle it a little. and

1 comment:

  1. My wife and I have not had cable for 16 years and don't miss it. I watch only two programs on PBS, Lidia's Italy, and Tracks Ahead. Sometimes I will mindlessly sit and channel surf with a jaundiced eye, thinking to myself about the junk being purveyed (to view and to buy). Television is the opiate of the masses. In a vain attempt to escape a painful reality, people will look at an inviting screen, but will become cognitively agitated by the types of programming and advertising seen. The avoidance of physical or mental pain cannot be accomplished by watching television. Our own visualization techniques work best at replacing feelings of pain with pleasing images to focus upon.