23 February 2009 ~ 2 Comments                                       

Cognitive Surplus: What are you going to do with yours? Clay Shirky explains…

Some of you might wonder why anyone participates in many of the activities discussed here or whether it is all sustainable given that they result in little to – more commonly – no money. Well, you should ponder what Clay Shirky has to say about what he calls Cognitive Surplus, a concept I just can’t get enough of.

(Odd side-note: I spotted Clay Shirky (about half way down the page) among those who participated in a project my girlfriend ran as part of her art collective’s Windows Brooklyn project last summer.)

In a video and transcript from last April – yes, it takes me a while to process and write about things at times – Clay lays it out thus:

A British historian argued that the critical technology in the Industrial Revolution was Gin. The changes were so rapid and disruptive that the British went on a bender for a generation.

“And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today.”

The Sitcom was the US’ palliative after World War II. We suddenly found ourselves with free time and disposable income, and we started watching a lot of TV. A lot.

“And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.”

My favorite part of his thinking: He was talking to a TV journalist about the recent rash of conversation surrounding Pluto’s planetary classification on Wikipedia to which she responded: “Where do people find the time?” His response:

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

He estimates we expend

“About 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year … watching television… I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter. I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing.

Thus, the free time and brain time outside of work remains, the question is what percentage of it will be occupied by the completely unproductive versus the semi- and extremely productive? An example of a successful use of brain time, in this case for the common good, comes from InnoCentive where about 20% of their projects are non-profit. Uncompensated. Using people’s free time.

Going forward, the big thing will be experimenting and figuring out what works in collective work and production. As I have covered here, experiments abound, some successful, many not. There is a long way to go, but as Clay says, this is not something society will grow out of, but something society will grow into.

Cognitive Surplus. Love it.

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2 Responses to “Cognitive Surplus: What are you going to do with yours? Clay Shirky explains…”

  1. Andrea 3 March 2009 at 12:51 pm Permalink

    Thanks for the props to Windows Brooklyn. I hope Mr Shirky enjoyed his cookie!

  2. Glenn 3 March 2009 at 2:58 pm Permalink

    I remember his book “Here Comes Everybody.” What a wild and intriguing visionary Clay is. Maybe I should say was. Forrester Research just released one of their papers on how the enterprise is http://ploneglenn.blogspot.com/2009/03/harnessing-collective.html intelligence so I guess that it has entered the mainstream.

    Actually, I think his original talk was on social surplus which, I believe, holds the key to his conundrum as to how we can keep fantastic wastes of time such as TV from swallowing up all the surplus brain power. The answer is that TV isn’t really all that social and social is a big motivator for people. That is why I released Cogenuity which is more like Innocentive meets Linked In. (i.e. more social networking features).


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