It was late last year, on one of those December days as bright and crisp as a good apple, when I first heard that The New York Times Company was about to be dropped from the S&P 500 like a bad habit, in order to make room for Netflix. Hark! The death of Old Media! The herald angel of New Media sings! gushed the commentator on NPR. Which is all true, of course, and the symbolism of the event – a company that made money by printing hard news since 1851 getting its butt kicked by a company that makes far more money streaming videos – so neatly captures our post-industrial zeitgeist that one can’t help but take notice.
The thing is, date-stamped so late in the decade, that moral strikes me as tedious, and almost certainly past its sell-by date; the real story in media is what happens next. But frankly I’m much more interested in food than media theory, and so it wasn’t until I came across Michael Pollan’s Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch that I started to see a reflection of our vintage-2011 American life in this little story of Netflix and the Times, a life considerably more devoted to watching people cook on TV than actually cooking:
The Food Network can now be seen in nearly 100 million American homes and on most nights commands more viewers than any of the cable news channels… But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of [the celebrity chef] as a figure of cultural consequence has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking…What is wrong with this picture?
In some ways, the answer to Mr Pollan is, “nothing”; if you don’t think you live a longer, more productive life because of industrialized food production, go try hunting and gathering this weekend, and let me know how it turns out. But that’s hardly the whole answer because, as Mr Pollan argues at length, the costs – to our bodies, our families, our environment, and even our aesthetics – are real, and rising. So what has that got to do with movies and newspapers?
Look, I like movies. I like newspapers. I even like that I can warm up a frozen pizza, when I don’t have time to cook. But I also believe that we’re making some questionable choices about how we spend our time, and that the consequences may be profound. I’m sure we’ve all seen the BLS data in one form or another, but it bears repeating: We’re awake for an average of 15 hours a day. Within that 15 hours – what I would call our lives – our two most time-intensive activities are working (3.5 hours) and watching television (3 hours). No other single category comes close, although we do spend about an hour and a quarter consuming food and drink. Actual food preparation – which includes, rightly or wrongly, microwaving pizza pockets as well as washing the dishes – comes in at a mere 32 minutes, 24 seconds, or about half of an episode of Top Chef. And reading? I suppose it’s telling that reading no longer warrants a line in the survey.