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 â€“ more commonly â€“ no money. Well, you should ponder what Clay Shirky has to say about what he calls Cognitive Surplus, a concept I just canâ€™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 collectiveâ€™s Windows Brooklyn project last summer.)
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.
â€œAnd 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.â€
The Sitcom was the USâ€™ 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.
â€œAnd 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.â€
My favorite part of his thinking: He was talking to a TV journalist about the recent rash of conversation surrounding Plutoâ€™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
â€œAbout 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year â€¦ watching televisionâ€¦ 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 peopleâ€™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.