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April 28th, 2008:

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

sent me a pointer to an article by Clay Shirky about the “cognitive surplus”—excess brainpower not needed for making a living. Thought-provoking in the extreme; read it if you haven't already. Shirky's thesis is that free time created by postwar productivity gains have been sopped up by watching TV, and if we watched only a little less TV and deployed that wasted brain-time in collaborative projects, wow! The things we could do! I'm short on time today, so I'll post a few quick observations on the article and the idea here, in the hope for more general conversation:

  • The consequences of the invention of gin are very well covered by Colin Wilson in his book A Criminal History of Mankind. The problem was not solved for 200 years—the urban poor drinking themselves to death was the primary reason for Prohibition—and it's still not entirely clear to me how it was solved. My guess: Universal education and technology (think TV) allowed the poor to entertain themselves in less destructive ways.
  • Do we really watch two billion hours of TV every year, or are TVs simply on for two billion hours? In many households, TVs provide a sort of background noise to prevent too much disturbing silence, but how much attention is paid to the box is a lot more difficult to measure, and I suspect Big Media would prefer that no one try.
  • TV is often watched for the many but very small time slices that it takes to catch the news or weather. Carol and I watch very little TV but The Weather Channel, and we watch it in small chunks of a few minutes a few times a day. It adds up, but converting those dispersed minutes into productive brain-time may not be possible. The problem here is not a shortage of time but a shortage of focus, which is a separate and worthy discussion.
  • Almost incredibly, Shirky does not say much about the immense cognitive energy already spent on collaborative noncommercial cognitive projects. Think Linux and all open-source software, tens of thousands of free ebooks scanned and formatted from out-of-copyright sources (and a few in-copyright sources, like some of mine, sigh) not to mention the work of all those Pixel-Stained Technopeasants who had their day (April 23) last week. This is not new news, though it's good for it to be pointed out now and then.
  • Nor is much said about the general rise in volunteering in more traditional social service pursuits, which by and large are not cognitive in nature. As problematic as I consider some of his conclusions, much good data on volunteering is cited in Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares? Not all time and energy released from TV watching now goes into, or would go into, cognitive pursuits.
  • And the ugly truth that no one seems willing to recognize: A huge percentage of people simply don't have the ability to contribute meaningfully to cognitive projects. This may be by genetics or by adverse circumstances, but it's true nonetheless. I keep thinking that a lot of them, if there were no TV, would go back to gin or to worse things that didn't exist when gin was invented in 1740.

My early conclusion: There's less cognitive surplus than the article suggests, and less upside to be gained by turning away from TV. People inclined to be creative already cluster toward the bottom of the TV time curve, and a lot of the people I consider brilliant don't watch TV at all. There is almost certainly an irreducable minimum number of people who need TV as an anaesthetic, and this number may be higher than we care to admit. Loneliness, clinical depression, and other psychiatric problems dissipate and render useless an immense amount of human energy, and we don't seem any closer to solving those problems than we were in 1740. Those problems may not in fact be solvable, though saying so won't make me any friends.

Still, anything that nudges people away from the box toward creative or collaborative pursuits of any nature is a good thing. My problem at this point in my life is not TV but sleep, since I need ten hours in bed to yield eight hours of useful sleep cycles. The time I used to spend commuting I now spend wondering why I'm not asleep, and if I could lick that problem I would get a great deal more done.