I used to feel a bit sheepish about how I spent so much time watching  TV as a kid.

Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Dallas, Magnum PI, to name just a few.

On sunny summer mornings my brother and I would leap out of the bed to… go outside and enjoy nature? No, of course not. To watch reruns of the sitcom Alice and other shows, of course.

Then came MTV, which anchored us to the sofa in front of  the TV all the more.

I think I watched every episode of Cheers.

And in the 1990s I even spent a few football seasons watching Packers games on Sunday afternoons.

But all this TV watching came to an abrupt end with the internet. Suddenly I had better things to do with my time.

Clay Shirky gave an interesting talk about this (the video is here or you can read the transcript if you prefer).

He says that after World War 2, we suddenly had free time on our hands, thanks to five day work weeks.

This free time created what he calls a “cognitive surplus.”

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives…

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

So now I don’t feel so bad about having watched so much TV. It’s not because we were lazy kids. It’s that we were in a holding pattern, so to speak, until we had more productive outlets for our cognitive surplus.

When I was a kid there wasn’t the option of creating a blog, running a little eBay store, editing a Wikipedia entry, writing a review of a product on Amazon, learning how to create a website, etc. We just had TV, top 40 radio, Walkmen and the phone.

It’s interesting to think about this cognitive surplus concept in regards to one’s personal life too.

We all go through stages where, suddenly, we have more cognitive surplus.

When the kids go off to school, when a financial burden is lifted, when one is settled into a new job and no longer searching for one, when one retires, etc.

There are so many interesting things to do with one’s cognitive surplus now. And almost all of them more interesting than TV (although I’m not giving up Mad Men, Lost or Project Runway :-) ).

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