digital rhetoric

Clay Shirky on Cognitive Surplus

I came across the video on Will Richardson’s blog. It has what should be a familiar theme. Basically, we spend a lot of time watching tv. If even a small percentage of that global tv viewership shifted to participatory media, say 1%, the resulting cognitive effort made available could create significant cultural objects (e.g., several Wikipedia-scale projects per year). This reminds me of a couple things. First, the way that you can donate your computer’s down time to search for aliens or looking for cures. Second, something that William Gibson said about how he finds the time to write his books (he only watches about eight hours of tv a year).

Shirky’s point lies somewhere in there. It also suggests something about crowdsourcing… namely that there is potentially a great deal of potential cognitive activity out there waiting to be engaged.

Now I do think there’s something interesting in terming this potential activity a "surplus." For one thing it implies a kind of economic equation here, which is something that shouldn’t be overlooked b/c we are talking about a kind of Marxian subjective labor potential here. Secondly, it’s not exactly surplus b/c watching tv creates value–as everyone who makes money off tv knows: without people doing the "work" of watching tv, there’s no money there (just as there’s no money in beer unless someone does the work of drinking it).

Nevertheless Shirky’s main point is vital. We are waking up to the realization that there are choices in how we use our time. We don’t have to spend our time, as Shirky describes, sitting in our basement watching sitcoms and trying to figure our if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter. We can go online and have a threaded discussion/argument about it instead.

So OK, not every possible choice we make will be that heroic or take us very far from TV land. However, even given all that dross, we will finally have our answer to the question about all those monkeys with their typewriters… only we are the monkeys!

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