Thursday, May 8, 2008

Working the Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky speakingI saw a neat talk by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody (which, as the book's subtitle says, is about organizing without organizations).

In the talk, Shirky describes the cognitive surplus of time that developed in the 2oth century in the U.S. as a result of the 40-hour work week and labor-saving devices generally.

What did we did we do with our cognitive surplus? We watched television.

Shirky's belief is that television is a transitional technology that cushioned us during the changes brought by the 20th century (similar, he says, to the way gin was used to cushion the beginning of the industrial revolution).

Now, he points out, some of us are doing other things with our time, whether playing online games, blogging, or building large web institutions like the Wikipedia. Like many people, I have wondered how "those people" find the time to build and maintain something like the Wikipedia. Haven't you?

The most amazing thing in Shirky's talk, though, was the estimated total number of hours Americans spend watching television. By his estimate, if all of that cognitive surplus time was used on other activities like creating content, it would be the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedias every year.

Or imagine what would have happen if we could apply it to citizen participation. Gee. Maybe we could have a democracy.

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