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On Cognitive Surpluses

  • April 28, 2008
  • Gautam
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Clay Shirky on television, it’s slow death spiral and the rise of Wikis.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time. And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

She then goes on to talk about a growing cognitive surplus and how we might direct that surplus.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation. I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

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Picture via James Good

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