Make-Work Bias?

Is this an example of make-work bias? Richard finds the following Clay Shirky factoid depressing:

Wikipedia... represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought...

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.

I don't get what's depressing about this comparison. Maybe it's more depressing in context?

Time spent creating entries for Wikipedia doesn't seem comparable to time spent watching television unless we have some predetermined notion about the value of passive media entertainment versus active media/information/education creation. If you think the ultimate purpose of life is to expand human knowledge or help others to the maximum extent possible, then I suppose this might be depressing.

But I don't think either of these things need be our ultimate purpose. The fact that people would rather, and in fact do, spend more of their time entertaining themselves by consuming passive media than actively helping others expand their knowledge seems like a good thing; I would rather live in a world where people choose to and are able to play more than they work. And while contributing to Wikipedia is in some sense inherently rewarding for those who choose to do so (or else they would not do so, for free), it's obviously not inherently rewarding to enough people enough of the time compared to watching television.

Is this depressing because we would rather live in a world in which more people engaged in positive-externality producing leisure activities than other types of leisure activies? But this still tells us nothing about the relative values of externality-neutral television watching versus externality-positive Wikipedia creation.

And this assumes television watching is neutral with respect to externalities. But is it? The more television my neighbors watch, the more advertisers are willing to pay to produce television programs, increasing both the quantity and quality of the programs, all at no cost to me. Do your part for the good of society and watch more television!

And now, having spent much of the day exploring Wikipedia and other user-created online content (such as Richard's most excellent blog), I shall retire to the warm comforts of my Tivo (skipping over the commercials, of course).

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Not Makework Bias

Actually, I think it's the opposite of makework bias. Makework bias is the belief that labor is plentiful and applications for labor are scarce. The excerpt you quoted properly recognizes that applications for labor are plentiful and labor is scarce, which is why he's depressed by what he sees as a waste of perfectly good labor, when it could be applied productively.

Of course, he's applying his own value judgments to the actions of others, so he's not necessarily right in thinking that they should be using their time more productively, but it's definitely not makework bias.

externalities are not the issue

Positive externalities are nice, of course, but what really bothers me is people wasting their lives when there are far more intrinsically valuable forms of leisure out there, i.e. involving self-expression, creativity, etc. I expand on this back in the comments on my blog.

Creations benefit an audience

Things like Wikipedia are valuable to the degree that they are used by their audience (as opposed to merely written by their contributors). So the value of Wikipedia comes from a combination of the time spent writing it (without which it would not exist) and the time spent reading it (without which it would not be performing its function).

Without his readers, the writer is nothing. The greater the amount of time spent consuming a created work, the greater the value of that work (ceteris paribus). So being a couch potato while passively consuming a created work contributes to its value. Of course, economic thinking already appreciates the worth of all human choice, including the choice to watch television. But what I wanted to point out was specifically that the value of created works like Wikipedia depends on their audience. Talking about the hours spent writing it looks at only half the picture, and the other half (reading it) is so important that without it Wikipedia has only a fraction of its value. But once you start talking about the importance to the value of Wikipedia of those who merely consume it, then the producer/consumer dichotomy implicitly employed in the quoted comparison of Wikipedia to television goes away. Wikipedia is not merely a vehicle for self-expression.

On at least two occasions I

On at least two occasions I added things to Wikipedia that I had learned from watching TV.

Sometimes I think there's

Sometimes I think there's nothing wrong with vedging out watching Wire and Cowboy Bebop DVDs all day. But then I think about the pile of books upstairs, Nozick on overcoming temptation to get past the smaller more immediate reward, and wanting to grok like Cosma Shalizi.