Cognitive Triage and Television

In the last few months I’ve been writing about cognitive triage: the harried state of temporal accounting, attending to what is most urgent at the expense of what is most important, which we enter into when situational demands outstrip our capacities to meet them. I’ve been focusing primarily on working life but I think that much of everyday life contributes to this process by buttressing a sense of overload which has its roots in labour relations. Even TV plays this role, because as this New Yorker article describes “Under these conditions, the question of where to invest one’s attention becomes more complicated”:

But TV is triage these days. While it used to be possible to catch up with every ambitious drama—during that golden era of TV efficiency, when there were only five of them—that’s no longer true. At this year’s Television Critics Association meetings, FX’s C.E.O., John Landgraf, a prolific producer himself, presented a report that was highly alarming, at least to television critics. Last year, according to FX’s data, three hundred and fifty-two scripted first-run prime-time and late-night programs aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming networks in the U.S., not including PBS. Joe Adalian, crunching the stats at New Yorks Vulture, wrote that the number of new prime-time scripted cable shows had “doubled in just the past five years, tripled since 2007 (the year Mad Men premiered), and grown a staggering 683 percent since the turn of the century.” When people angrily tweet at me that some show is the best thing on TV, I know they’re lying: they haven’t watched most of the other ones, and neither have I.

Part of the problem is an objective increase in what is available but equally significant is our awareness of this increase and the availability of it. The idea I’m trying to flesh out this week is that we are much more likely to know what we are missing: the variety available to us has increased but digitisation has decreased constraints upon the mediation of this variety (e.g. iTunes rather than Blockbuster, monthly free trial of Netflix rather than substantial investment in Sky) and also provoked extensive discussion about this variety at the cultural level (e.g. daily TV websites and blogs rather than the film pages of Sunday newspapers, discussion on social media rather than occasional features on general interest TV). I’m increasingly convinced the mechanisms at work operate across domains, even if their particular implications look very different in spheres such as television, music, literature and scholarly publishing.

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