You must read this brilliant post by Clay Shirky:
*update on May 15, 2008 – video, hat-tip to Dean*
The bottom line:
in the early phases of the industrial revolution, with the rise of accelerated urbanization, people (esp. in London) didn’t know what to do with the newly acquired “civic surplus” – and they turned to gin until they figured it out and started building public libraries, better education, etc.
In the 20th century, people started having more free time, but had no idea what to do with it – and this is why sitcoms became so extremely popular.
Now, well into the 21st century, perversities such as Big Brother are taking this cognitive surplus safety-net to the extreme.