Saturday, April 26, 2008

Clay Shirkey on Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirkey is the very smart new media scholar who posited that kids growing up today immersed in ever-more advanced technology are undergoing genuine neurological changes similar to those accompanying language acquisition in small children. (Check my previous post here.) Recently, he described a social paradigm shift no less cataclysmic. In a speech given at the Web 2.0 Conference on Wednesday, Shirkey discussed the sudden democratization of the tools of cultural production, which have turned millions of formerly passive consumers into content producers. Shirkey goes on to answer the all-important follow-up question: Where do they find the time?

It turns out Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year. Worldwide, people watch about a trillion hours per year. These are astounding numbers; by comparison, Shirkey estimates that the entire Wikipedia project worldwide represents about 100 million total hours of human thought.

If people worldwide, suddenly awash in a sea of choices, reduce their total television viewing by a mere one percent (1%), the "cognitive surplus" freed up would be equivalent to 100 Wikipedia-scale projects. Per year.*

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first.... 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.

Read the whole speech here.

* Shirkey mistakenly claims 1% of a trillion would yield 10,000 Wikipedia projects but I think he's off by a factor of 100.

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