Cognitive surplus- what else could you do besides watch TV?

July 26, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More

David McCandless created an amazing graphic recently, contrasting the amount of time Americans spend watching television each year with the cumulative amount of time it has taken to create Wikipedia. Check this out:

Image via, with permission.

Image via, with permission.

The graphic illustrates what author Clay Shirkey calls “cognitive surplus”, or spare brainpower that exists, simply waiting to be engaged.  How much of that brainpower is being wasted watching television?

This got me thinking, and I remembered a recent Newsweek article which pointed out that creativity is declining in America.  Even as intelligence (measured by IQ) is rising, creativity (measured by CQ) is declining:

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

What’s at fault for this phenomenon?  Television and video games share at least part of the blame:

It’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

So, how much time is spent watching television, and how do people feel about the use of their time?  Check out these statistics (source):

  • 99% of American households own at least one television.
  • A television is on in the average home 6 hours and 47 minutes per day.
  • Assuming a wage of $5 per hour, the value of the time spent watching TV by Americans would equal $1.25 trillion dollars.
  • 49% of Americans say they watch too much TV.
  • Number of minutes/week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 3.5
  • Number of minutes children spend watching television during the week: 1,680
  • 54% of 4-6 year-olds would prefer to watch TV than spend time with their fathers.
  • The average American kid spends 900 hours per year in school, but 1500 hours per year watching TV.

This reminded me of a new word I’d learned lately (advance apologies to the easily offended)– “tittytainment“.  Apparently, it’s a portmanteau created by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor, to suggest a type of social control to keep the masses pacified while the world’s leadership govern as they see fit.  Wikipedia describes it perfectly:

Tittytainment is a term describing the propaganda designed to protect the capitalist and neo-liberal principles that govern globalization.

It is a form of censorship, propaganda and disinformation with the fundamental objective of minimizing, in the eyes of democratic countries populations, the toxic effects that the current globalization is starting to create on a big part of the world population, according to anti-globalization groups.

I thought that seemed a little bit conspiratorial.  I mean, the idea of the world elite minimizing the harmful (to them) consequences of globalization by encouraging passivity and entertainment?  Then I remembered a  few other things that made it seem not so conspiratorial anymore.  The ongoing breakdown of the world economy has meant that hundreds of thousands of American families were added to the ranks of the homeless last year.  Total bailout of the US corporate system stands at a staggering $3.7 TRILLION dollarsWages have fallen for workers across the board, although as productivity has steadily increased.  Even in the middle of the Great Recession, worker’s productivity is gaining faster than forecast.   And don’t forget Vice-President Biden’s comment that “there’s no possibility to restore 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession.”  Check out the 22 statistics presented here which point out the continuing collapse of the middle class, including these:

•    83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.

•    66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.

•    Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

•    For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.

•    The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Senator Bernie Sanders published a piece at The Nation this week which addressed many of the same themes:

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades. During the Bush years alone, from 2000-2008, median family income dropped by nearly $2,200 and millions lost their health insurance. Today, because of stagnating wages and higher costs for basic necessities, the average two-wage-earner family has less disposable income than a one-wage-earner family did a generation ago. The average American today is underpaid, overworked and stressed out as to what the future will bring for his or her children. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.

But, not everybody is hurting. While the middle class disappears and poverty increases the wealthiest people in our country are not only doing extremely well, they are using their wealth and political power to protect and expand their very privileged status at the expense of everyone else. This upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.

The 400 richest families in America, who saw their wealth increase by some $400 billion during the Bush years, have now accumulated $1.27 trillion in wealth. Four hundred families! During the last fifteen years, while these enormously rich people became much richer their effective tax rates were slashed almost in half. While the highest-paid 400 Americans had an average income of $345 million in 2007, as a result of Bush tax policy they now pay an effective tax rate of 16.6 percent, the lowest on record.

Last year, the top twenty-five hedge fund managers made a combined $25 billion but because of tax policy their lobbyists helped write, they pay a lower effective tax rate than many teachers, nurses and police officers. As a result of tax havens in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and elsewhere, the wealthy and large corporations are evading some $100 billion a year in U.S. taxes. Warren Buffett, one of the richest people on earth, has often commented that he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary.

Yes, the rich keep getting richer.

Yet somehow, these articles require some digging to find.  Meanwhile, Lindsey Lohan’s jail soap-opera and various Mel Gibson trivia have been on the front page of every news site for the past two weeks.  The more I think about it, the more “tittytainment” seems like a especially apt explanation for the passivity of the American populace.  And then I remembered the Romans had their own expression for tittytainment: “bread and circuses“.

Bread and circuses” (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a simplistic means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the common man (l’homme moyen sensuel).

In modern usage, the phrase has become an adjective to deride a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life. To many across the political spectrum, left and right, it connotes the triviality and frivolity that defined the Roman Empire prior to its decline.

Throughout this post, I have linked extensively to Wikipedia, as an example of the worthwhile alternatives to television.  Please consider using some of your cognitive surplus for something other than bread, circuses, and tittytainment.


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Category: children, Communication, Culture

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (7)

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  1. Jesse Grace says:

    The problem is its ALL brain drain. Its cool to watch TV and go online every once in the while. The problem is folks dont READ anymore. Magazines, books etc. The internet and TV have polluted and diluted our minds to the point of mush. Everything, all the time, is too much

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:


    You're right, to an extent. I think the key factor is whether the media encourages passivity, or apathy, or powerlessness. Both TV and the internet can do that, depending on what they are used for.

  3. hyperlogia says:

    I can usually tell when someone watches a lot of "reality TV". These shows seem to promote traits that I find repellent, such as sanctimoniousness, strict adherence to social norms, and black-or-white thinking. Of course, TV isn't the only medium instilling these "values" into the public, but it's the one that sticks out the most.

    If I were feeling paranoid, I'd say that the intent of these shows (or at least, the force-feeding of the above-mentioned traits down the public's collective throat) is to rob people of their empathy and critical thought and make it harder for people to get along with each other. That's a pretty effective distraction from the class shift that's happening…

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Comedy Central used to run a show called "Short Attention Span Theatre" which featured short clips of stand up comedy acts. Since I haven't had cable in several years, I don't know if it still airs.

    When I look at some of the current offerings on broadcast TV, (watched by those of us who are either unable or unwilling to waste $60 to $120 per month on cable service), I realize that most of the programming is tuned to an audience with a very short attention span, Only a few shows standout by making you think.

    And by "think", I don't mean recalling relatively useless information, I mean actually using some critical problem solving skills, to solve a mystery before the character on the program do, or to using creative, lateral (outside the box) thinking to second guess upcoming events in cliff-hanger type series such as "Lost"

    It seems to me, however, that the short attention span programming is having the added effect of shortening the attention span of its viewers.

    There is a purpose behind the dumbing down of the programming. Broadcast media in this country is mostly commercial. The main purpose of broadcast entertainment is to provide an advertising venue. Commercial stations make money by selling air time to advertiser. The programs are, used as bait to attract viewers to the proper channel at the proper time to see or hear the commercial advertisements. These ads are designed to be short and memorable, and if the programming is particularly vapid, the ads stand out even more.

    In general, game shows, including "reality" programs are inexpensive to produce when compared to glitzy screenplay series, making them more profitable for the broadcasters.

    There is another facet to the dumbing down of broadcast media that I personally find disturbing. It has rendered a large portion of the population incapable of critical thinking or skepticism. Over the past few weeks, the local airwaves have been flooded with campaign ads for the primaries in August. Across Tennessee we have 20 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Democratic candidates, 53 Republican candidates, 2 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Libertarian candidates, 1 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Constitution Party candidate, 2 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Green Party candidates, 1 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Prohibition candidate, and 1 <a rel="nofollow" href="; rel="nofollow">Pirate candidate. Many of the Indipendents are ultra-conservative Republicans who consider the mainstream Republican candidates to be RINO (Republicans In Name Only). Several TEA party candidates are also counted among the Independents.

    Note: I was unable to find an online version of the Republican party platform. Their platform link redirected to a fundraising commercial site.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Oops, I submitted the last post before I made my point. Over the past several weeks, the local airwaves have been flooded with campaign ads by various Republican candidates, each claiming to be the one that is running a "Clean" campaign, claiming to be the "Anti-Obama" candidate, accusing all opponents as being "False Conservatives", "Libruls in disguise", and outright liars, while claiming they will reduce taxes, the national debt, illegal immigration, big gumment, and freeing business from regulations and restrictions so the natural competitiveness of the "Free market" can make this nation into a capitalist utopia.

    Taken separately, some of the ideas sound good to a non critical audience.

    Nobody like taxes, so lets get rid of 'em.

    And the government should guard the borders and the airports to keep the illegal aliens from coming in and taking our jobs.

    And our government should pay off its debts.

    But when you think about it critically, none of it makes sense.

    "Reduce taxes and pay off the debt" .. How can you pay off the national debt with less money coming in? There is a claim that reducing tax rates can increase tax revenues. In some circumstances, this is true, but it only works when the consumers have a surplus in their personal budgets, and only with small changes in the tax rates. In a debt based economy, it doesn't work.

    As for immigration, most of the conservative anti-immigration reforms are targeted specifically at Mexicans crossing our southern border. The real problem is that there are businesses in this country willing to break the law and hire them "off the books" to save money and boost profits, by not having to pay full wages or benefits on the employee. If caught, the resulting fine is usually considerably less than the about saved by the business.

    So if we beef up the border patrol, who gonna pay for it? Even if we privatize it patrol, the contractor will expect to be paid. So if the government has no money from taxes to make the payroll, no border guard, no restriction to the flow of undocumented laborers, and a boon to the American companies who hire them.

    But in our dumbed-down state, we are blissfully unaware. Truly the mass media has become the "opium of the Masses".

  6. Brynn Jacobs says:


    Excellent points, and I agree. I'm having trouble finding the citation now, but I think it was Neil Postman who wrote about the number of "breaks", or changes of camera angle, during programming. The number of "breaks" has increased dramatically over the past few decades. His point was similar to yours: the number of breaks is both symptomatic of, and contributing to, changes in the way people think. It's a part of our "sound-bite" culture, where even complex and multi-faceted stories or issues are expected to be simplified to meaninglessness. As hyperlogia notes above, everything is simplified to black-and-white, nuance and ambiguity are to be avoided at all cost.

  7. Brynn Jacobs says:

    A new Nielsen report indicates that our collective online habits are also more geared towards entertainment:

    Perhaps you think you’re doing something useful when you boot up your PC and head online. Odds are, there’s a one-in-three chance you’re spending your time on Facebook. Or playing with virtual sheep.

    So says Nielsen in a new report about what American do online. Title: “What Americans Do Online.”

    The key takeaway here is that social networks and online games take up about a third of our Web time. That’s up from last year, when the two categories combined to take up about 25 percent of our time.

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