“Where do you find the time?” Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus might be a good name for a band.

I found this video of Clay Shirky at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco via Warren Ellis. It is 15 minutes long, and the territory covered includes…

  • The critical technology for the early phase of the industrial revolution was gin.
  • The TV sitcom is the today’s gin. The new social lubricant. The heatsink for the cognitive surplus.
  • “Where do people find the time?”
  • Wikipedia has taken roughly 100 millions hours of culumative effort so far.
  • Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV between them per year.
  • “It’s better to do something than to do nothing”
  • Even lolcats are an invitation to participation “if you have some sans serif fonts … you can play this game too”
  • Media is becoming less about just consumption and more about consumption + production + sharing.
  • “This isn’t the sort of thing that society grows out of, it’s the sort of thing that society grows in to.”
  • Anecdote: a four year old searching behind a TV, looking for the mouse
  • “A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken”
  • Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for

There’s a transcript of the speech on Clay’s blog. If you’re not into video, go and read that instead.

Mark Morford discusses Clay’s speech on SF Gate. He’s critical about the potential of participatory media for art, creativity and independent thought, saying

if social networking is the future of creativity, the future is bland indeed.

I think he’s missing the point. Yes for sanity’s sake, let’s do more than networking with our surplus. Of course. Let’s make amazing things. Even (gasp) more amazing than Wikipedia. I’m increasingly seeing social networking tools as a radar which helps me (to reiterate those three key points from Shirky’s speech) consume, produce and share. In themselves, those tools are indeed faddish (Twitter is still hot. The love affair with Facebook has come and gone for many people) but the underlying reasons for networking (whether physical or online) remain. Someone’s social network shouldn’t be confused with a tool which helps them maintain and extend that network online. These tools are often (if they want to be successful) a means to an end.

Mark Morford is also concerned about the danger of ‘groupthink’ in collaborative projects:

Wikipedia’s unusual success aside, few things are worse in this human world than creation by committee, by crowd and consumer and the masses. Few things destroy true vision and the integrity of a unique idea more than bowing to the forces of groupthink.

At first glance, that does seem to be a valid challenge. How often do digital-era collaborative social surplus energy projects ever actually feel like committees though? Aren’t they more like communities? Flexible to the point of being fickle perhaps, but not bowing to any (traditional) pecking order other than a very fluid meritocracy which respects contribution over seniority. There’s a creative advantage to projects which use the cognitive surplus of people outside their salaried day-jobs which may make them immune to the influence of the sort of groupthink which Morford has no doubt endured in the real world. Since the participants’ investment in spare time projects is very portable, there’s little danger of them remaining involved in a bland, tired dead-horse project when they can hang out with creative, passionate people doing something authentic in the virtual team next-door.

And let’s not confuse the size of the potential pool of participants with some sort of “how on earth can we scale a team to that many people?” problem. If he wants virtual teams working online with creative integrity, we don’t have to wait; there’s no shortage of them today. The creative energy of the world doesn’t have to be scaled horizontally to include the masses. It might stack. The next Wikipedia is no doubt already already happening, and it might be quite a lot smaller. The good thing is that it won’t be alone.


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  1. I have two issues with Clay’s points. First, it’s not actually clear what he’s claiming. In his comment on my blog post about it (http://www.technovia.co.uk/2008/05/nicholas-carr-clay-shirky-and-the-web-as-liberation.html), he states that his point is that “doing something is better than doing nothing”.

    In which case, thank God there are people like Clay around, because I’d *never* have thought up that one myself :)

    But seriously, Clay’s point rests on the idea that watching something, consuming something, is “doing nothing”. That’s nonsensical, of course: does Clay believe, for example, that I’m wasting my time if I listen to a Mozart sonata, too?

    It’s ironic, too, that Clay’s point has been made in a video. Does the fact that I watch the video on the net, rather than on a computer, somehow imbue it with some magical “positive” ingredient?

    Comment by Ian Betteridge — May 16, 2008 #

  2. My feeling is that their is, as you say Ian, a magical positive ingredient. I think there’s a world of difference between sitting down to watch a specific program and sitting down to watch any program. Doing something specific is different to passing the time.

    We have a PVR. To me these things are so wonderful precisely because they turn the later into the former automatically. A lot of TV is watched because it’s not time to go to bed yet. The PVR doesn’t give me that time back, but does let me gain more from that time.

    Also, I am thankful of Clay’s points; stating the obvious is sometimes required. The Greeks had the mythology of the Sirens who enthralled men’s minds while their bodies rotted. 200 billion hours of TV per year in the USA alone seems to me to put “doing something is better than doing nothing” squarely in the “needs to be said again” category.

    Comment by John — May 16, 2008 #

  3. Nice Site Roo. I watched that presentation as well … my thoughts in detail are here


    (plus my scribble as I watched it at the bottom) but I think Clay is on to something in that society might be ready to move from one distraction (tv) that doesn’t produce much value … to another (interaction via the web … trumping distraction)

    Comment by tim bauer — May 16, 2008 #

  4. More thoughts on this speech in a reply from Nick Carr (via Ian Betteridge).

    Comment by roo — May 29, 2008 #

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