It is a truth universally acknowledged – and one I won't challenge here – that most TV programming consists of mental effluvium, made by and for idiots, and that if your daily viewing is close to the national average (four hours 18 minutes!), you should haul your TV off to be recycled and do something more fulfilling instead, like staring at a piece of wood. "Television is now so desperately hungry for material that they're scraping the top of the barrel," Gore Vidal reportedly said – and presciently, assuming he said it before the inaugural broadcast of Celebrity Masterchef.
But times are changing: as Clay Shirky notes in his much-trumpeted book Cognitive Surplus, younger people are watching less TV each year, using the freed-up time to fuel what he and others see as a new era of creativity. In self-help, "living a more creative life" has long been a cherished goal, but now it's happening – largely online as the web dissolves old barriers to publishing, and also offline, as evidenced, say, by the new fashionableness of craft culture. "Get Excited And Make Things", reads a popular parody of the "Keep Calm And Carry On" poster. All this is plainly good, and the arguments against it – in short, that what gets created is amateurish rubbish – have been largely discredited. Even so, you could argue that there's something missing. In all the excitement about creating, are we in danger of forgetting the deep pleasures of audiencehood?
The creativity evangelists imply you've got a choice: create stuff, or be a sad, passive sofa-vegetable. Sometimes this claim is explicit: the commentator Jeff Jarvis argues that when professional media types make things for others to consume, rather than inviting collaboration, it's "inherently insulting". The message is the same one promoted by happiness gurus who urge you to trash your TV: being the audience is for saps.
The problem with this is that audiencehood needn't be remotely sad or passive – indeed, you might argue it's as vital, for a happy life, as creating things. (Obvious disclaimer: yes, I'm paid to produce things in hopes that others will read them.) Anyone who's ever been transported by a novel knows this already, but research provides support. Experiments have shown that the brains of absorbed fiction-readers are extremely active; reading, in the words of the scholar Thomas Roberts, is "not an escape from thinking, but an escape into thinking." There's plenty of jargon-ridden academic work on how audiencehood is an active state, culminating in the extreme (ie, French) notion that the reader actually creates the novel. But you don't need to go there to take the basic point, which is that it can take more brainpower – and creativity – to properly consume a good book than to do many more overtly "creative" things. And that it might be more enriching: being "lost in a book", to quote the title of one major work on the psychology of reading, is surely the epitome of the state of satisfying absorption psychologists call "flow".
That's novels, of course, not TV; one study previously mentioned here found that 87% of TV-watching time wasn't spent in flow. But that means 13% of it was. If you deliberately chose your viewing, filtering out the effluvium, couldn't you make it 90%? There's lots of novel-quality TV around, after all. (Don't worry, I'm not going to mention The Wire. Oh, damn.) Get excited and make things, sure. But don't knock audiencehood: done well, it's equally life-enhancing.