NYU Professor Clay Shirky asks, "What are you doing with your Cognitive Surplus?"
"I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I
should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you
seeing out there that’s interesting?"
telling her about the Wikipedia
article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the
planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of
this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people
are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an
ruckus–"How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?" And
a little bit
at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the
while–from, "Pluto is the ninth
planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped
orbit at the edge of the solar system."
I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we’re going to
have a conversation about authority or social construction or
whatever." That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and
she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?"
That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "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."
So how big is that surplus? So 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. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of 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. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.
The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we’re still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity."
Fascinating stuff . . .
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
Web 2.0 conference, April 23, 2008 http://www.herecomeseverybody.org/2008/04/looking-for-the-mouse.html