April 30, 2008

Cognitive surplus is a concept that produced an "aha!" moment for me. Many blogs have covered Clay Shirky's presentation at Harvard of his new book Here Comes Everybody (no sniggering!). Via.
  • Yes, thought-provoking. Besides gin, incidentally, I believe the genesis of the novel is often attributed to the emergence of a large new class of relatively prosperous women who had time to read for pleasure for the first time.
  • Thank you for this post.
  • It's an interesting argument, but I suspect it's not as generalizable as he'd like it to be. Not everyone is an upper-class college-educated 20-something full of energy and ideas. In the past, the people who were motivated to do something other than sit on their butts and watch TV were already doing it, just not with the added ease and functionality of the electronically-enabled wonders of today. No doubt the tools make it easier and facilitate new kinds of activities and such, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the single biggest new feature on the Internet in the last couple of years has been to turn it into yet another way to watch the same old television shows.
  • Oh, I disagree, briank. It's the medium of television itself that forced its users to be passive consumers of content. Everyone is full of ideas, not just the 20-something college kids. This article is inspirational to me as I'm just now (at 43) coming to the realization that so much of my free time is utterly and completely wasted passively inputing other people's music, TV shows, sporting events, movies, art, and ideas, when I could be nurturing, creating, and sharing my own. Like the author, I had a good excuse for most of my life that the barriers to creation and production were limiting and out of reach. But the reality is that current technology allows everyone to easily create anything they want, to get their creativity and ideas out there, and see what becomes of them; to collaborate with countless others on projects so huge they couldn't have been conceivable just a few years ago. The only thing that stands in the way of a true cognitive revolution is the outdated notion that things are only worth doing if they can make you money.
  • The thought about cognitive surplus started a few days earlier, with this comment in Metafilter. One part of the thought was niggling at me; what was so significant about the big gap in creative writing between the Victorians and us? And when I saw the essay/presentation by Shirky, the "aha!" moment came, completing the thought that started with the comment. Prior to mass entertainment, such as TVs, cinemas, large theatres for the masses, I think (not being a historian and too bone lazy to go check it out for sure) that most people were involved in creative activities during their free time. People gathered in the evenings for storytelling, passing along oral folk tales and songs and legends; things were made, not always useful stuff such as shirts and cabinets, but trinket boxes and little pouches and decorative things to put around the house. The upper classes would have gathered together at the piano for singalongs, or talked late in the night about philosophy and art, or wrote novels and essays and plays. Entertainment today requires no skill and no participation except for our attention. I can't help but think that this has blunted the creative edge of society as a whole.
  • Let us go forth, little monkeys, and be a whetstone!
  • Wonderful! I hadn't heard about this - thanks! I did a thing that became Internet Famous among knitters a while back. The #1 criticism has consistently been, "What a waste of time." From now on, I will simply reply with a link to Shirky's blog post.
  • While creative people keep being driven by that *need* to do things, to research and learn and create, today as always, whether their output is a play, a painting or a video or a flash game, yes, it's hard not to take into account TV and other media's role in the sating of the masses. The dreams put there in the screens by a few become the yearnings of the many. And right now the net is at that very same stage. From a free-from place where both trivial and serious pursuits usually demanded a high level of participation, we're on teh verge of it becoming a locked down, monitored pipe with a million youtube channels.
  • Though I completely agree with his about the effects of tv (and all mass culture, though TV may be the most significant), the problem with the history in his essay is that we actually do have less free time now than we did in, say, the 1950s, or 1960s. We have may more free time than working people in the 19th century (where employees had long hours, and housewives/servants spending a lot more time and energy on cooking and cleaning and other necessities of life than is necessary today), but a lot less free time than those middle and upper class people who learned to play piano and talk about art and literature (even if mostly what they did was drink and socialise). The metafilter comment reveals more about class differences between their aunt and themselves than about change over time - because upper class people today do spend a lot of time on various skills, though it might be skiing or flute lessons rather than making scrapbooks. (This is a good thing to remember: whenever you hear someone lament about the poor state of education today, comparing it to the nineteenth century and how they were reading Latin at age 12, you should point out that only a tiny fraction of the population was actually reading the Latin (and mostly male at that). Even after the British education act of 1870, the majority of the population was getting much less education than we do, and leaving school at about 14.) That said, I do completely buy into his argument about mass media, especially television, and its effect on popular culture. For much of the twentieth century, popular culture was becoming more and more mass culture - produced by a few professionals for the masses, rather than produced by the populace for the populace. The internet is one of the few pressures against this tendancy, and we are seeing a revival of truly popular culture because of it. But there are limits as to where this popular culture will go. When I think to early modern popular culture, it was certainly creative, but far from cerebral -- lots of drinking, some music, some dancing. And the ballads they sang weren't all Shakespeare - there was plenty of Britney Spears stuff too. Our new popular culture is growing - but I suspect it will be more YouTube and less Wikipedia, and much of the cognitive surplus will be about showing off and/or sex, as it always was.
  • mechagrue, I remember your famous Thing, and it was awesome. As the people who built the giant Minas Tirith out of candy said, "if you’re not using your free time to do stuff like this, what the hell else are you doing with it?"
  • The internet certainly provides unprecedented opportunities for more widespread participation in cultural, creative and political activities.Those born after the members of the TV generation, however, may be best prepared to take advantage of such opportunities, while we old TV addicts continue in our escapist, indolent ways. Unleashing the "cognitive surplus" via the internet (whether accessed by computers, cell phones or other yet to be invented means) will require that the net remains relatively free, uncensored, universally accessible and not inundated by spam, blinking ads and other intrusions of corporate, rather than human, culture. Unfortunately, preserving web freedom also means preserving the ability to post silly videos and idiotic comments to YouTube. I loved the story about the little girl looking for the mouse behind the TV.
  • the problem with the history in his essay is that we actually do have less free time now than we did in, say, the 1950s, or 1960s Do we? I think we've maybe deluded ourselves into believing that, but the free time is still there, even if we don't see it as free. The problem is that we refuse to live a similar lifestyle to our parents' generation.
  • Do we? I think we've maybe deluded ourselves into believing that, but the free time is still there, even if we don't see it as free. I read a study probably ten years ago that was focused on this, comparing the amount of hours of actual work per week in the '40s or '50s to that of the '90s. The result was that total work had gone up pretty significantly. Again, it's been a decade since I read this, but I recall the difference was mostly due to work around the home, not at a job. The conclusion, IIRC, was that the proliferation of "time saving" technology and assorted gadgetry meant more stuff to clean, maintain, and otherwise tend to around the home, which ironically created more work to keep the home clean, maintained, and functioning smoothly. I have zero problem believing that, based on my own experience. A single HD crash in my house a few weeks ago resulted in probably 10-12 hours of work and a couple hundred dollars of expense, and I still haven't contacted a data recovery company.
  • I had heard about the Shirky talk, and then via Making Light I also got pointed to what is, to me, a companion article. this
  • Man, this thing's really making the rounds. Clay Shirky's going to get some mileage out of that clip. I've seen two tweets about it this morning alone.
  • Good points- I'll try to remember them as I sip gin while watching "Frasier" reruns.
  • MCT, it is almost as if people have begun to use the internet as a promotional vehicle. But of course, that's preposterous.