Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 21, 2009

Exploiting the collective cognitive surplus

I know that this has been around for a while, but Rolf just introduced me to a great video of Clay Shirky at Web 2.0 Expo last April. It’s only 16 mins, worth watching. If you want to read Clay’s thoughts instead of watch and listen, an edited version of his speech is here.

Clay argues that, like gin during the industrial revolution, the sitcom was the great crutch of the 20th century, with shows like Desperate Housewives functioning as a giant “heat-sink” for the excess cognition of people on the planet who suddenly found themselves having to deal with the concept of “free time”. Sitcoms were “dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and casued society to overheat”.

Clay points out that using TV as a proxy for a cognitive surplus implies a huge amount of spare capacity in society. He says:

“if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. … And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.”

Eventually, Clay argues, society recognises and designs for such surpluses, rather than simply seeking to “dissipate” them; and with “architectures of participation” like the web, we now have the ability to shift some of this surplus of consumption of media into production and sharing – what he calls the other two stages of the “media triathlon”.

But is the tendency of people to create and share rather than just produce a fad? Will the general public just move back to the couch and sitcoms after a spell with LOLCats and blogging? Or are we seeing a major, one-time shift where the surplus of consumption is being channeled into more generative forms of participation?

Clay argues that we’ll still chillax in front of Scrubs, but that we’ll just watch it less. If we shift only 1% of that surplus across the net-connected population, that still represents about 100 wikipedias of generative activity every year online. And, he points out, when you talk to kids today, you get the sense that “a screen that ships without a mouse is a screen that’s broken”. The next generation increasingly expects interactivity and the ability to produce and share, rather than simply consume. Clay is therefore “looking for a mouse” – opportunities to move away from passive, fixed, canned experiences, and carve out a little of the cognitive surplus to make a good thing happen.

I guess one danger here is that the future that Clay is envisaging doesn’t happen because we get locked out of deep participation by platforms that are closed – see Jonathan Zittrains address to the Web 2.o conference here. Also, while I agree that “doing something is always better than doing nothing”, the trick will be to channel the surplus into a set of somethings that can help us face at least some of the thorny challenges that confront us today.

But Clay’s point is well-made, and transferable to other parts of our lives rather than just the media. Where are there other architectures of consumption that could benefit from the offer of production and sharing?

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