What Do We Do With this New “Cognitive Surplus”?

What Do We Do With this New “Cognitive Surplus”?
Christine Huang
  • 28 april 2008

BoingBoing points us to a thought-provoking argument made by Clay Shirky about the idea of “cognitive surplus” and the ways we spend (or waste) it. Shirky, a professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), contends that the rise of automation in the 20th century has resulted in an increase of free time and mental space which could be used for thinking or creating, but which we have grown accustomed to spending zoned out in front of the television screen. Shirky goes on to argue that the ways we used to spend the cognitive surplus (watching sitcoms and other light entertainment) are being replaced by new, more proactive ways – like writing Wikipedia articles or contributing other forms of user-generated content. But the revolution is still (only slowly )underway: with the help of some complicated equations and a friend from IBM, Shirky shows that the amount of “human thought” that we Americans expend watching television is still some 2,000 times that of the “human thought” units we use in contributing to all the Wikipedia articles in the world. But with the gradual demise of traditional forms of passive entertainment, the argument goes, we will find ourselves with a growing cognitive surplus to consume – and participate – in new ways. Shirky maintains that this rise of participation is what we should be following; even the creation of something as seemingly pointless as lolcats is more participatory, and thus more valuable, he says, than the time we might have spent watching the Skipper’s antics in “Gilligan’s Island”:

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