Monday, April 28, 2008

Cognitive surplus

A brilliant article this morning by Clay Shirky:
I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, "What are you seeing out there that's interesting?"

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, "Pluto is the ninth planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system."

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation. [...]

So that's the answer to the question, "Where do they find the time?" Or, rather, that's the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: "Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves."

At least they're doing something.

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list... However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.
Indeed. Go read. And then participate: Blog, comment, edit, post. Or be an elf.

And put a hammer through your TV while you're at it.

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OpenID diddums said...

B-b-but I'm fond of my TV! It's been with me years, and survived a lightning strike (or so I believe). It certainly survived a humdinger of a thunderstorm.

That said, I don't spend as much time watching it as I used to... computer projects beckon more insistently, and so do books.

April 28, 2008 at 1:22:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Zhoen said...

The love affair with TV is over. I watch far less, usually while I am reading blogs or writing email.

April 28, 2008 at 2:11:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous JoeInVegas said...

I was always a Mary Ann guy, Ginger just seemed too Hollywood for me.

April 28, 2008 at 5:57:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Savtadotty said...

For the last three years my TV has retired to being a video/DVD monitor only - no antenna, no cable, no commercials. I'd rather reader and write blogs. Never mind the elves.

April 28, 2008 at 7:43:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Pacian said...

I come from the generation that pours its cognitive surplus into the internet and computer games.

But seriously, I have to ask, how do you find the time to argue about what word to use to describe Triton's ugly sister?

April 28, 2008 at 9:00:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Dale said...

Bravo! Absolutely.

April 29, 2008 at 2:20:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous lumina93 said...

Nope -- there is interesting stuff on TV. I'm no more going to kill it than I am my computer, my newspaper or my CD player.

April 29, 2008 at 5:33:00 a.m. GMT+2  
Blogger brooksba said...

What an awesome article. I love it! There are so many better things to do than zone out watching TV. People rarely get this when I mention that I don't watch TV more than 3 hours a week. Hmmm.

April 30, 2008 at 9:16:00 a.m. GMT+2  

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