Cognitive Surplus

Here_comes_everybody 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?"

I started
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
," 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
."  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 
Clay Shirky   
Web 2.0 conference, April 23, 2008

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. ChangJ commented on Apr 27

    Haha, I’ve been considering this theory for years now. Its amazingly true, imagine if everyone who instead of watching tv (or internet/music/etc) spent that time doing something constructive. The world’s problems will be solved easily.

    I’ve always said, Leonardo Da Vinci would never be as productive in modern times as he was in his because of all the tv and entertainment alternatives available.

  2. Rich_Lather commented on Apr 27

    Like the bumpersticker says, “kill your television”

  3. Ross commented on Apr 27

    Psycho-babble. And on Easter evening no less.

    Happy Pascha.

  4. VennData commented on Apr 27

    Not babble at all. Collaborative filtering, open source systems, large engineering projects and many complex systems are the precursors to this.

    Financial Markets – to name another – are a similar phenomena and we still have oodles to learn about that one.

  5. E commented on Apr 27

    You can always count on the Big Picture to look at the big picture. I take stock of my “free time” and how I can make it a value-add to my life, family, net worth, or whatever. And reading the Big Picture makes the cut.

    But I never thought about the macro trends that are spawned by the spending of millions and billions of hours of “cognitive surplus”. Interesting.

    Speaking of cognitive surplus, Barry, there is a problem with one of the images on this page – It takes forever and is killing the page load. Thousands of hours of cognitive surplus down the drain.

  6. Mark E Hoffer commented on Apr 27

    I think ChangJ may have it backwards, many of our ‘problems’, at least from an Engineering POV, have already been ‘solved’.

    This ‘cognitive surplus’ comes about from the Political ordering–predicated on Waste–of our Economy.

  7. The Financial Philosopher commented on Apr 27

    Spending cognitive surplus on talking about cognitive surplus seems a bit perplexing as well…

  8. steve commented on Apr 27

    Clay Shirky’s “What are you doing with your Cognitive Surplus” is a good question but a
    better one is Tell Me How I’m connected ?

    Here’s a company to keep a eye on…

  9. Joe commented on Apr 27

    We don’t have enough to do in this world that many have to partake in another world or Second Life. The amount of hours per week for the average user was astounding, I believe over 20.

  10. Ross commented on Apr 27

    Oh hell. Just like carbon footprints and carbon credits.

    Start an auction market for “cognitive surplus” and you can have mine (35 hours a day) for 50 cents an hour. Overvalued at half the price. You say ’35 hours a day’? Those are calculated in lawyer hours.

    Can we talk about something serious like electricity futures for August 08 and how we can prevent killing people in Chicago?
    On the other hand, my eugenics professor would say……………

  11. Tom commented on Apr 27

    “What are you doing with your Cognitive Surplus?”

    I’m solving autism and I just about have it.

  12. DavidB commented on Apr 27

    Ha! That’s always been one of the main arguments I’ve had against income tax. Think of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of man hours wasted every year filling out forms and collecting and organizing the data. I waste between 8 and 16 hours every year doing that.

    Now if you moved to the straight sales tax then only businesses would have to go through the time to do taxes. They are doing taxes any way so a bigger lump of pie to process would just be a different size of the same calculation. That would make the whole operation much more efficient without imposing extra burden on anyone

    It would free up not only man hours doing taxes but also accountants and federal bureaucrats who have to ensure compliance and accuracy

  13. pmorrisonfl commented on Apr 27

    I spent my cognitive surplus, and now I’m borrowing yours.

  14. Eric Davis commented on Apr 27

    Hu-ra… I’m not sure about “Cognitive surplus.”… So much as Idle cycles, and embedding and re-inforcing delusions about Beer and Hot chicks, or that we can all be 25 year old rich people, with fucking amazying lives, with wind blown silk curtains around us at all times, to further catch-22 waisted brain cycles.

    Loss of the largest single non sustainable resource in our lives…. Time….

    this, all comming from a guy who just spent 2 hours watching deadliest catch… But I do like the crab and the toothless fisherman so…

  15. sanjosie commented on Apr 27

    I tried to email you, but my iMac barfs over your contact info. Sigh….

    Coming back from a day of relaxation, on the street where I live, Santana Row in San Jose CA, a slightly inbriated man said to a hotel staffer, “I”m in foreclosure in thirteen states.” Yikes!!!!

    In the past, in passing, conversation snippets were about positive real estate expectations. Reality bites!

  16. XON commented on Apr 27

    Cognitive Surplus Futures Market anyone?


  17. riverrat commented on Apr 28

    Great post Barry, perfect Sunday nite fare…seemingly lite but not really at all.

    And yes TV is such a phenomenal sink for cognitive surplus…advertisers have finely tuned their onslaught to .01% less than the level where we just cannot stand it anymore…

  18. John Wellman commented on Apr 28

    A fair amount of my cognitive surplus is spent on TBP!

  19. Mike Sullivan commented on Apr 28

    I have problems loading your front page. Check you Flash embeds. They are giving me crap on mac/leopard/safari…

  20. Barry Ritholtz commented on Apr 28

    Just click no —

    most of the scripts all go away in the new redesign

  21. Melancholy Korean commented on Apr 28

    (Apologies for the following but I once taught middle school students in an after-school enrichment program, and old habits die hard).

    For those with cognitive surplus to spend, might I suggest a fun, intellectually rewarding, philosophically deepening, soul nourishing activity?

    Learn ancient Greek. Attic, preferably, but Koine if you must. Roman generals used to spend their retirement years studying the language and reading the old classics, and you can to.

    Not hard. Seriously. It’s basically Latin, which is similar, structurally, to German. And German, of course, might as well be English. I mean, 7000 years ago they were all the same language anyway.

  22. cinefoz commented on Apr 28

    I think you’re confusing ‘cognitive surplus’ with ‘personal vacuum’. When people look as if they are deep in thought, you overestimate what is going through their head. Assuming away sex and the need to use the bathroom, what’s left is ‘when’s lunch’ and ‘gimme that’. The main differences among people is how well or poorly these common thoughts are expressed.

  23. Michael Storm commented on Apr 28

    We already have something to soak up all that ‘cognitive surplus’. Its called CAPITALISM. Hello!


  24. General Specific commented on Apr 28

    Ross: You need all the cognitive surplus you can get. Don’t be selling it. Maybe we can set up a charity to which contributers can donate some of theirs.

  25. david foster commented on Apr 28

    Interesting. 200 billion hours per year of TV-watching sounds pretty awful. But, of course, some of it is overlapped with other activities, like paying bills, doing the dishes, or at least petting the dog…

  26. Einstein commented on Apr 28

    With 58 trillion world-manhours available each year, what’s a couple of hundred billion?

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