Monday, February 21, 2011

Where Do People Find the Time?

I know I’ve been a little heavy on Clay Shirky these past few posts, but I keep stumbling across videos of these interesting talks he gives.

In this talk, Shirky discusses what he calls a cognitive surplus – a happy and unhappy byproduct of our era in which many more people than in the past are dealing with free time and how to fill it. He uses the post-World War II era as a trigger for the cognitive surplus and says that the situation comedy, or television in general, acted as the cognitive heat sink for most post-war Americans.

He claims we’re entering an era now where the cognitive surplus – brought on by increased industrialization and the advent of the knowledge worker (and these are assumptions here, because he really doesn’t outline from where this surplus is coming from) – is being recognized “as an asset rather than as a crisis.”

He sees some – and only some, more on that later – of the things occurring on the Internet as an outlet for that cognitive surplus, in that the Internet is providing an outlet for more people to produce and share intellectual assets, whether they be in blog posts, cartoons, videos to project like Wikipedia.

While discussing this concept with a television producer, he spoke about the hours and hours of volunteer effort many people put in to the Wikipedia entry on Pluto after it was declared a transneptunian object by the International Astronomical Union, and the producer tsked and asked, “Where do people find the time?” Shirky retorted that “anyone working in TV is not allowed to answer that question,” given that, by a back-of-the-envelope estimate he and an IBM engineer came up with, people in the United States spend 200 billion hours every year watching television.

“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” he said. He also added:
However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf [speaking of World of Warcraft players] I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure out if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter. . .
Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.

Gin, he said, was the grease that helped the world through the initial throes of the Industrial Revolution, getting society to the point that they regarded the gathering of more and more people in urban areas as an asset rather than a crisis. The sitcom, he said, was the grease that helped the world through the initial throes of the cognitive surplus brought on at the end of World War II.

He doesn’t really carry the idea further, but I have to wonder if social networking is the next bit of grease that’s going to get society through this next crisis – one of a cognitive surplus combined with a re-evaluation of the true worth of knowledge workers – until something is organized that takes this situation from crisis to asset.

Part of me has to wonder, though. People have an innate desire to produce and share. I wonder if Shirky’s being a little short-sighted – for very good reasons – in not seeing the amount of produced and shared material that’s gone undocumented before the Internet (he hints at it, saying that as a kid he didn’t spend time blogging, or working on Wikipedia or other such activities rather than watching TV because in his time those other options didn’t exist). I’m sure a lot of stuff – from sagas to songs to drawings to stories to what have you – has been produced, long before the cognitive surpluses and the labor surpluses he talks about. We just don’t know how much, because it’s not documented. The Internet allows such individual producing and sharing to be documented at little to no cost, except in the cognitive effort necessary to produce something to share.

Additionally, he concedes that the Internet isn’t a nirvana of people sharing and producing stuff, using their cognitive surplus to the best of their abilities. He and the IBM engineer predict the Internet-connected population of the world watches 1 trillion hours of TV a year – or the equivalent of 10,000 Wikipedias each year. That’s a lot of time going into what he calls the “cognitive heat sink” of television.

So I have to feel somewhat good that I’ve used some of my cognitive surplus time – and taken advantage of the Internet – to write a novel and start on a second, and participate in Uncharted, where we’re trying to get people like us to produce and share and to be a media that invites participation, rather than expecting our readers to consume what we produce without participating themselves.

But I also have to say that people who are willing to produce and share were producing and sharing before the Internet came along. The Internet has made it vastly less expensive to produce and share, but it’s not the reason people do things, or create things, or write things, or want to share them.

I’m also convinced that because it’s become easier to produce and share, it’s going to become easier to produce and share things that lack depth – as evidenced amply by many things I produce on my blog. Spending our cognitive surplus producing and sharing is great, but can be even greater if we couple that with spending some of our cognitive surplus learning, reading the classics, working to become more culturally literate than we are, so the things we produce and share have a greater depth and meaning.

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