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Cognitive Surplus

You must read this brilliant post by Clay Shirky:

*update on May 15, 2008 – video, hat-tip to Dean*

The bottom line:
in the early phases of the industrial revolution, with the rise of accelerated urbanization, people (esp. in London) didn’t know what to do with the newly acquired “civic surplus” – and they turned to gin until they figured it out and started building public libraries, better education, etc.

In the 20th century, people started having more free time, but had no idea what to do with it – and this is why sitcoms became so extremely popular.

Now, well into the 21st century, perversities such as Big Brother are taking this cognitive surplus safety-net to the extreme.

Yes – to the average web citizen, this abomination of passive media is well below standard in terms of its ability to capture attention.

But to the average non-web-savvy consumer, it’s just about all there is.

Big Brother – the ultimate gin of 2008. The year that Larry Niven thought we’d had interstellar drives (link).

Yep – people sit back and enjoy looking at people with no life building one – while neglecting their own.

But as Clay Shirky says in his (I have to say it again – brilliant) post – we are all looking for the mouse.

Once everyone has a comfortable way of interacting with the media – they will!

If my grandma had a way of influencing the content she’s bombarded with on TV, she would. She would grab that mouse and tell that incompetent excuse for a politician to fuck off and do something useful for a change. Or she would connect with other folks her age or find someone who’s lived through the same borderline bearable times during WW2.

But she can’t do that. I wonder if she ever will.

Yes, the TV she has got now may be HD with a digital signal showing her hunderds of channels from all over the world. But it’s still the same thing as 50 years ago. Channels.

Gin is still gin, it doesn’t matter if it comes through normal post or DHL.

So – one shiny day in 2013 (or sooner, I hope), the huge beast that is mainstream media will be ready to take on clicks.

But will it matter then? Media will be pouring (as it is already) from phones, watches, walls, posters, T-shirts and the like, reacting to your every move.

Videos of missing children with submit forms for clues on milk cartons? Sure! OLED, multitouch, cameras … everything is shrinking, blending, melting into one nearly perfectly connected mesh of peace-seeking individuals (the Borg, anyone?).

It’s all about elegance. And sitting in front of the telly looking at stupid people doing meaningless stuff … passively … is far from elegant.

Step up. Do something. Even if you’re exhausted coming home from work/school/whatever, you’ll end up being the same stupid a-hole you’ve been watching and making fun of every evening if you don’t actually do something.

As Tolstoy (I think, ask Gregor) said – not living out what you were meant to be hurts you.
And I can hardly imagine someone’s purpose in life being watching other people jerk off on TV.

One life. Live it! :)


  • david |

    Follow your bliss! :]

    BigBrother –> this really gets on my nerves…

  • Gregor |

    Fascinating. This idea of cognitive surplus reminds me of an observation that seems to occur all over and all the time. It is somehow a fact, that in order to extract value from a system, one inadvertently finds the same system crammed with lots and lots of trash, or useless matter.

    Take DNA for example. It is rarely mentioned that most of the DNA is rubbish. There are far more genes in DNA that do absolutely nothing, than the ones that seem to control the organisms that come out of that DNA. Let me speculate, or better guess, that there is less than 5% of useful DNA within the genome. Or maybe 1%?

    Take the brain for example. Do you remember the often repeated chant about how much of brain’s capacity we’re really using? 5%? 1%?

    Or take advertisements, as another example. Why are there so many really bad ads around, and so few intelligent ones? Again the 95% to 99% trash observations holds true, doesn’t it?

    This ‘trash ratio’ pops up in system after system. The question is whether trash is really trash. Maybe ‘trash’ is not the correct word. Maybe the word that should be used is ‘average’. It is somehow clear that above average only appears if there’s average too. And below average as well.

    And another thing here’s the measure by which we’re measuring things. Above average only comes out if we measure it against something. If we change the dimension of measurement, we often find that something that used to be above average is that no more. And vice versa.

    Take an apple for example. Viewed from the dimension of nutritious value an apple is great, but don’t forget that it comes with a lot ‘trash’ or average to below average companionship in the form of the apple tree, the leaves, the branches, the trunk, the roots, even the soil in which it grows. Is all of this edible? No! So, if edibility is the measure of value, then 5% of value is accompanied by 95% of non value.

    But you object, don’t you. Well, if you object here, why don’t you object when you think about people in front of TVs as useless?

    So, coming back to cognitive surplus, let me ask this question: Is cognitive surplus really a resource that can be tapped? What about if this cognitive surplus is already employed, alas it’s not a surplus anymore.

    Anyhow, I am glad that the new generation is looking for the mouse.

  • Tadej Gregorcic |

    True, I couldn’t agree more with the 5%-95% (or 20-80, Pareto’s principle comes in many flavors) rule.

    Perhaps 5% of what you’re viewing passively has value. And I have absolutely no objection against this, as we’ve all grown up and thrived on these 5%.

    But what I would argue is that there is at least one medium out there where this ratio can be influenced by choice and interaction (true also for rentals and VOD).

    Where only 5% of additionally spent energy can yield 95% more value to you as a consumer.

    But let me get back to the cognitive surplus.

    Can it be tapped?

    Parhaps, or perhaps not yet – I think the problem is the amount of choice we are facing.
    Human beings are generally bad at making wild choices, and the more things you get to pick from, the higher the chance that you’ll just procrastinate it all away …

    The Internet has opened up like an endless straight line of fascinating books … but where do I start? Do I take this one? I looks cool … No, wait, there is a better one 20 steps ahead … No, wait … An endless array of choice.

    The mainstream consumer needs someone to build shelves, arrange the books alphabetically, by category, by age group, by sex, build a cafeteria in front of it, brand the stuff, make room for parking, etc.

    While this is being done, the average consumer will have to put up with being served the first 20 meters of the line over and over again … yes, comfortably in their couch, but with no one to talk to or influence the choice.

    Anyway – awkward analogy, but you get my point.

    I do think the cognitive surplus can be tapped … but it will take time. And once we are all immersed in the new mesh of quasi perfectly connected nodes, I am sure a new surplus will come along that our grandchildren (or – even better – the mouse ;)) will tease us about …

  • Kota |

    I think it’s more of a social-graph thing. I suecspt most of the potentially-embarrassing stuff isn’t being shared as ego-boosting self-promotion, it’s being shared out of camaraderie with people with whom you have a personal relationship and the sharing is part of the usual social milieu. The problem is that what is appropriate in the just-friends-sharing-right-now context of a party may be wildly inappropriate if it turns up at the office the next day, or in your life a decade later when you’ve undergone considerable life experience and are quite different from the person who shared those things in bygone days. Most people have a good sense about what to share in real-life contexts, but online venues haven’t been around long enough for people to develop good social reflexes with them. Going “on record” with something used to be a grave and serious thing, but now we leave a huge data trail of almost-permanent ephemera as part of our usual social interaction.I think there may also be a cognitive aspect to it. “Energy” is a useful metaphor for the mental resources we use for decision-making. There are sources and sinks of this energy in your life— you can get exhausted having to figure things out, you can feel replenished by having a good time relaxing with friends or music or books— and having to figure out “should I share this, and with whom?” puts an added price tag on an activity that you’re performing because sharing with friends is supposed to *gain* you energy, not spend it. So most people don’t do the calculation because they already have enough energy sinks in their life, until they get bitten by their indiscretion.I think we’re going to need to develop new cultural mores to deal with it all. There is probably a good niche waiting for a sufficiently charismatic etiquette maven to sort people out— a Miss Manners type to get invited onto talk shows to in more colloquial language. (I like Miss Manners, but that very dignified style isn’t going to create cultural catchphrases the way someone who can scoff, “dude! seven year rule!” would.)

So, what do you think ?