Posted by: Ken Homer | May 3, 2008

The Great Cognitive Surplus

A friend sent me a most interesting blog post on the great cognitive surplus. 

How many times have you received an email which after reading, you think or remark to whomever you are with – some people have too much time on their hands!

That’s an example of the cognitive surplus.

So is Wikipedia, blogging and even World of Warcraft – at least according to this blog post.

The blogger is Clay Shirky and, based on the cultural references in his post, I am guessing he’s around my age – it seems we both wasted many hours in our youth watching Gilligan’s Island, and, while he did not mention it, I’ll bet Lost in Space was probably a factor in his misspent youth as well. There was something mighty appealing about Angela Cartwright in a tight fitting spacesuit – even for a prepubescent lad.

Clay’s post is based on the address he delivered at the Web 2.0 conference in April 2008.

I found his observations to be really insightful. His post is longish, informative, thought provoking and well worth reading in its entirety.

Here are just a couple of things that stood out for me:

It is estimated that in its current state, Wikipedia represents around 100 million hours of human thought.

In the USA people watch 200 billion – that’s 200,000,000,000 – hours of television each year. That’s 100 million hours of just watching commercials alone each and every weekend!

The worldwide internet connected population watches a trillion – 1,000,000,000,000 – hours of television a year. 

The media of the 20th century was viewed as a single race – consumption. But media is actually a triathlon, it’s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share. 

When you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer.

One percent of those trillion hours represents 100 Wikipedia-sized projects!

What an amazing thought – if just one percent of the amount of time people  around the world spend watching TV were channeled elsewhere it would unleash an astonishing amount of cognitive capital.

And of course given the times we are in and the challenges we face, I found myself immediately wondering if we could shoot for ten percent. That thought was followed closely by one along the lines of – as great as it is building up cognitive and intellectual capital on the web, there’s probably a far higher rate of return when we build up relational capital in our communities.

The shadow side of blogging – at least for me – is how it reinforces my introverted and introspective tendencies, sometimes to the point of my neglecting the people in my life – including myself. I might well find more satisfaction and different kind of self-expression leading to greater fulfillment, were I to focus on connecting f2f through volunteering some of the time I spend blogging.

What might become possible if just ten percent of the time we humans spend watching TV were channeled into community restoration projects?

There’s a question worth exploring!



  1. […] are some of my thoughts/ideas which seem related enough to this post by Clay to merit inclusion. Leading Sustainable Conversations tipped me off to Clay’s piece through tag surfing WordPress and has some interesting thoughts […]

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