Cognitive surplus

Clay Shirky thinks we're at a critical point in our society, where we shift away from a passive television culture and use the cognitive surplus to create a participatory culture. Here's an excerpt, but definitely read the whole thing.

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."

Shirky estimates that if you took all of Wikipedia as a unit of measure -- that is, all 2,354,625 articles, with their billions of edits, behind the scenes discussions, and individual contributors -- the US's two hundred billion hours per year of television watching could produce the equivalent of 2,000 wikipedias. That's a lot of untapped mental activity. He argues, pretty convincingly, that if you could harness even 1% of that time in participatory ways, you'd come up with some pretty amazing stuff. Wikipedia, Youtube, and the rest of the blogosphere agree.


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