Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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This comic is a yet another graph, describing how people who don't own a television feel, throughout several time periods. While televisions have existed since 1928, regular scheduled broadcasts of television programs did not begin until the late 1940s. So before the 1950s, it was common not to own a television and therefore most people's feelings about it would be fairly neutral. This changed as televisions became cheaper and more people started owning televisions, meaning that if someone didn't own a television, it was generally because they couldn't afford one. This might lead to someone feeling embarrassment when admitting they don't have a television. But gradually, television ownership increased until eventually, nearly every household had at least one television, and those that did not were more and more likely to do so by choice rather than due to poverty. The graph therefore peaks at around the year 2000, when many people would be proud to say that they did not own a television. Randall is suggesting that these people would feel smug because they are resisting a popular trend (owning a television,) which the rest of the public take part in. The graph tails downwards at the end, suggesting that Randall believes that people are becoming less smug. This could be because of the abundance of video content on the internet and mobile devices, especially from locations such as YouTube, Netflix and iTunes. So, according to Randall, people are returning to not owning a television simply because it's not necessary and these people therefore feel neutral towards their lack of a television.
The initial upturn from embarrassment to smugness may also be a commentary on the quality of television programs over that period of time. In the 1950s and 1960s, television was a major source of news and information. People therefore discussed television programs frequently, as a major social activity. The limited number of stations and lack of recording devices meant that people tended to watch the same programs at the same time, meaning that those who had missed out on those programs might feel socially "out of the loop".
By contrast, by 2000, many programs were criticized as poor quality or "mindless", e.g. daytime talk shows such as Jerry Springer, and reality shows. So, someone might feel more smug for not watching so-called "mindless television". Similarly, as television viewership increased from the 1950s through the 2000s, it is possible that other activities such as reading has decreased; especially given that the younger generation today don't remember a time without television. So, someone who did not own a television set might feel more smug because they take part in more "beneficial" activities like reading, exercise, and studying.
The title text suggests that whether people feel embarrassed or smug doesn't depend directly on what percentage of the population owns TVs (TV ownership rate) or even on how quickly this percentage is growing (derivative of TV ownership rate with respect to time); instead it depends on how the change in this percentage is speeding up or slowing down (second derivative of TV ownership rate with respect to time). Specifically, as the rate at which people adopt TV ownership accelerates (positive second derivative of TV ownership rate with respect to time), people who don't own one feel embarrassed (negative smugness); and as the market is saturated and the rate at which people adopt TV ownership slows down (negative second derivative of TV ownership rate with respect to time), people who don't own one feel smug (positive smugness). If people feel twice as embarrassed/smug when this rate of acceleration/deceleration doubles, then we have Randall's formulation: "smugness is proportional to the negative second derivative of TV ownership rate with respect to time".
As evidence for this (if you believe Randall's graph), the adoption of TV ownership should theoretically follow a sigmoid curve, which is the graph of something that starts small, grows in a spurt, and then approaches a maximum capacity (in this case 100%). The negative second derivative of a sigmoid curve looks very much like Randall's graph.
- [A graph is shown with an x- and y-axis.]
- How people feel when they say
- "I don't own a TV"
- by year
- [The x-axis is labled: 1950, 2000, today.]
- [The y-axis is labled neutral at zero, smug at top, and embarrassed to the bottom.]
- [A negative sine curve is shown in red, starting at 1950, moving into negative values, reaching the zero level again at the beginning of the 1980s, reaching its maximum shortly after 2000, and decreasing again until today. An arrow shows the current direction.]
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