For decades, the television ruled North American life. It was our alter, our teacher, our babysitter and our almost-constant companion. Despite years of fiery criticism, it seemed hard to believe that more than a tiny minority would ever give up their infernal boxes.

Well, numbers just released tell a different story. Sometime next year, the number of Americans watching “television” and movies on the internet will exceed the number watching actual televisions. This trend has been coming for a while, as cable subscriptions have been falling for years, especially amongst young people.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve never owned a television nor lived with anybody who owned one since moving out from my parents many years/rentals ago (contrary to popular belief, most anarchists don’t live with their parents). For virtually everybody I know my age, the idea of getting a cable subscription is lunacy. Those who own TVs us them as computer monitors, stockpile seasons of shows on their Xboxes or rent DVDs from the library. To my young son, television is a quaint old technology at grandma’s house, like telephones with wires.

There are still, of course, many millions of cable subscribers, but for once there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It might seem strange now, but when I was young many hours of television a day was considered “normal” for children, and I can only shudder to think of the lingering effects on all of us. As mind-numbing as computers and the internet can be, it really doesn’t compare.

Which brings me to a certain video recently posted by the Globe and Mail, which warns of the dangers of cutting your cable. In a word, it’s embarrassing, and reflects the sad state of Canada’s mainstream press (to their credit, they’ve added an “editor’s note” putting the numbers in context since I first saw it). Do read the comments – they’re worth it. Aside from using laughable numbers, the only real argument they make regard sports, and they don’t seem familiar with any options beyond Netflix and Itunes.

Here’s a hint, guys. There’s this thing, it’s called “YouTube”…

Then, of course, there’s the other option mentioned in almost none of this coverage. This option offers just about every show you can name, extending back decades, and generally appearing online within an hour of their first appearance on television. Even in Hamilton’s somewhat eastern time zone, this often means seeing hit, prime-time shows hours before they hit local cable networks. The one downside is that it’s not entirely, technically, “legal”.

On the plus side, they call it “piracy”.

If this Infographic is any judge, it’s a rather popular choice, making up about a fifth of total internet traffic. To put this in perspective, last Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” premier was downloaded over a million times on bittorrent alone within 24 hours of airing, making it the most pirated episode of television ever (and largest torrent swarm). I can only guess at the number of times it was streamed, or the number of other keen nerds who managed to get their hands on the Walking Dead finale or the much-awaited new episode of Doctor Who. I, of course, would never do such a nefarious thing, but rest assured, it is happening everywhere around you right now.

The rise of this level of thoroughly and openly illegal service shows a couple of things. The first, of course, being that it’s now possible to replicate all the services of a modern cable network without so much as using your real name to sign up (and while dodging the law). Looking deeper, though, we see why this is possible – levels of input which were never possible with a channel-changer. The internet is still largely ungovernable, which gives me some hope. Complain, if you will, about the dangers of unrestricted speech, thought and expression, but I’ll take them any day over their absence. For all it’s flaws, the internet allows me to post hours of video on a (sometimes) weekly basis, on subjects and to a depth which would rarely, if ever, grace the Discovery Channel.

Then, of course, there’s the increasing amount of content now being produced exclusively online. Some are youtube shows, others are fan-films, but they’re growing quickly in number and quality. I’ll admit I was amazed a few years ago when I learned fans had set about filming entire seasons of their own Star Trek productions, but never got into it. I loved “Chad Vader, and even watched a few of the independent Ghostbusters flicks (like “Freddy vs The Ghostbusters“), but when I saw “Dark Resurrection“, the Italian Star Wars fanfilm, I was blown away. If the new Disney movies are half that good, I’ll be satisfied. The special effects technologies which once cost millions are now open to high school students, yet Hollywood can’t seem to make much of a movie for under $100 million. Then they complain (despite record profits), of “losing money” to illegal downloads.

The death of television, even if we still end up watching the same content (sans commercials) online, comes as a welcome relief for the human psyche. As Marshal McLuhan quipped all those years ago, “the medium is the message”. What separates television from other mediums is the centralized and one-way nature of it’s broadcasts. The implicit message is one of passivity and spectatorship. For decades we sat on couches and busied ourselves while choosing between the few channels and shows we could tolerate. We adjusted our lives to it’s schedules and often defined ourselves by what we saw on the screen. TV was our drug, our school and our religion. Now, finally, increasing numbers are waking up from that nightmare.

As we awake and escape, though, we’re met with new kinds of screens which dictate our lives in ways even the television generations couldn’t imagine. These screens react, they connect with each other, and increasingly, they stare back. How will we look back on the era they defined our lives, I wonder, when it draws to a close?

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