Author Clay Shirky, a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, has written a book that should provide a vote of confidence to those who fear that technology is making us dumber and more insular.
In “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” he proposes treating the free time of the world’s educated people as an aggregate, a “cognitive surplus.” To attach some scale to it he proposes considering the total amount of time people have spent on Wikipedia as a kind of unit. In the end, this “”back-of–the-envelope calculation” yields somewhere around 100 million hours of human thought (a fraction of the 200 billion hours of television Americans watch each year).
But an encouraging thing is happening, according to Shirky. Time spent watching TV, for instance, is diminishing, and the passivity that goes with it. “Several population studies – of high school students, broadband, users, YouTube users – have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same: young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”
Hence, the surplus. Shirky contends that the time is ripe for people to apply their surplus to socially dynamic, hopefully generous enterprise. If you think all that TV-watching was a lot, consider the fact that there are now 2 billion people online across the world, and more than 3 billion with mobile phones. Given that there are around 4.5 billion adults worldwide, Shirky points out that "we live, for the first time in history, in a world where being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.”
With this many people now becoming increasingly available to work on a project or problem, Shirky envisions an increasing era of responsible behavior, whether it’s “couch surfers” pooling resources to create an international network of sofas to sleep on, or lifesaving applications such as Ushahidi, which has allowed Kenyans to report on acts of violence in real time.
Where could the surplus lead? Shirky contends that it will actually return our society to the ways of collaboration that were natural up through the 20th century. And if there is a danger that cognitive surplus aided by new technology could result in lower creative quality, Shirky believes the upside will be greater innovation, a natural desire to share (crowdsourcing), transparency, and a dramatic rise in productivity.