Pulling the Plug
"Did you see this?" I ask Jess. She's sitting across from me at the kitchen table. We're engaging in a rare moment of weekend peace. The kids are watching "Danger Rangers," their lips hanging slack from chewing mouths on the couch. Fresh coffee. Newspaper. Bagels.
"Nine percent of the people in this survey watch SIX hours of TV a day!" I hand her the paper, which she scans, reading ahead of where I'd stopped in shock.
"Yeah, but 19 percent say they use the net that much. Who the heck spends 6 hours a day on the net?" The mockery in her voice is cutting and sharp.
"You wound me madam," I reply, snatching the paper from her. "That's it. We're getting rid of the thing."
"The net?" She's just making fun of me now. Laughing, I throw my napkin at her.
"No not the net. What do you think I am? Crazy? No, the TV!"
According to the survey in question, released by IBM in August, internet-hours are starting to, or already have overtaken TV-hours. Twice as many people in the sample cross that six hour near-addiction line when it comes to the web vs. the TV. And this is just for personal stuff, not for work.
Which part of this you find shocking and disturbing really depends on the kind of person you are. My wife's question is a fair one - what do I do on the net all day. The answer is "a lot more than I can do on TV." My connection to the Internet is effectively perpetual. Certainly during any hour I consider "work" I am connected. E-mail updates constantly. Instant Messaging is pinging off and on. Skype calls come in. Internet-radio plays in the background (and if not, iTunes is feeding last.fm my listening habits). This before I open up a web browser and surf, research, or just procrastinate, and the connections are essentially identical to my phone if I am forced to leave the basement.
The distinction between this work-time and my play-time is nebula-thin. If I fire up the 360, it is of course connected as well, and the screens to my left and right maintain their constant connections to media while my fingers and attention are straight ahead. And this play-time is usually work-time in disguise. I can quite often compose a particularly useful piece of text in my head while playing something relatively unintellectual (Peggle anyone?)
In both cases, work and play, what drives the experience is self-selection, immediacy, and multi-tasking. To some extent these things can be true of TV as well - between changing channels, Tivo, and my laptop, watching TV is an experience not dissimilar. But there's an intensity and involvement in consuming net-media that simply isn't replaced by the coax/cable-box pair.
"Well, what would we be giving up really?" she asks. My wife will humor me on almost topic for 10 minutes, so I can judge nothing from this response.
"Cable. We call Time Warner, cancel, and take the box back. We save about 80 bucks a month." Pulling the money card is a cheap trick. She's a flat out sucker for saving money. Still, she looks skeptical as she leaves her chair to get herself another cup of coffee.
"It's like the coffee really," I continue, as she puts another little K-Cup in the on-demand coffee maker. "Almost anything we really want to watch - Lost, Battlestar, Heroes - they're all available on demand on the web. At least they were last year."
Last fall our PVR computer started acting up, and for a month or two we were forced to either watch TV live, or find our favorite shows on the web. It was surprisingly easy, and while we could have played them through the computer hooked to the big TV, what we actually did was snuggle on the couch watching shows on her laptop. It was a good thing. It felt like we were watching a play. I felt far more connected than when we were staring out into space, each with our laptops open, half-paying attention to the show, much less each other.
She quickly sussed out the root problem.
"Really it's about the kids. We're not going to go hunting for Hannah Montana on the Internet for her to watch on Sunday mornings."
Like most parents, I imagine, we let our kids watch TV not out of any delusional belief that the stuff is good for them, but because it's easier than parenting. I say this as someone who is quite confident of who I am as a parent, but I'm also not in so much denial that I could call kids TV anything more than the culturally sanctioned nipple-full-of-coke it is. More often than I'd care to admit, I have stumbled down the stairs on a weekend morning, children in tow, to turn on the TV.
Sunday mornings sleeping in. It's a hard thing to give up on purpose. But I steel myself. "Nope," I admit. "But is that a bad thing? That our kids watch less TV?" Yet another cheap shot. In the Guiness book of of rhetorical questions "should you're kids watch more TV?" is way up there.
She goes for the kill.
"What about football?"
There really is no replacement for watching football on a Sunday afternoon or a Monday night. But as we've aged, we watch less and less. Most of our TV viewing has been time shifted for nearly a decade, and sports just isn't the same on delay.
"Well, so we make dates to go watch big games at sports bars." This is actually a selling point. My wife digs the road trip to the big sports bar an hour away. You sit in a booth for 3 hours drinking margaritas and yelling at the TV while people bring you wings and ice cream. It doesn't suck.
"OK let's do it. Give me the box." This is the kind of people we are. We noodle on things, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years. But when we decide to do something, it's always instant. We make decisions about buying houses nearly as quickly.
Ten minutes later she's driving to the cable office with our fancy HD Cable PVR box on the passenger seat, and we have no cable in the house.
For me, life without cable has almost no impact, because of gaming. When I enter the headspace where my wife wants to flop down on the couch, I want to flop down and play a game. With some couples that might seem distancing, but we both work from home. We see each other off and on all day. We can get to the gym together, go for a walk, go to lunch. So "me time" in the evenings is natural for us.
About a year ago, I made a decision to stop watching crime TV. The distinction between being a passive voyeur to violence and depravity vs. enacting it myself through a game is, admittedly, a bizarre one to make. But I just found myself sitting on the couch one night thinking "I should be doing something." And in a very real way, gaming is doing something. I make conscious decisions. I interact with far more intensity than just flipping channels.
But my TV knows what I'm doing. The first night without cable just happened to coincide with my acquisition of Metroid Prime 3. Without cable to monopolize the big-TV, my wife sat on the couch next to me, pointing out things I missed, suggesting strategies, laughing at the repetitive voice acting.
And then my Wii fried. It let out a Japanese scream and froze, never to reboot again.
But I'm not giving in. The cable stays off.