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1 May, 2008

Cognitive heat sink

For a few days, I've been noticing references online to the compelling concept of 'cognitive surplus', so have taken the time to investigate the source: Clay Shirky's presentation to a Web 2.0 conference last week.

To oversummarise Shirky's hypothesis, progressive automation of labour-intensive tasks at the start of the Industrial Revolution and in the 1950s (introduction of technology to the home) generated a 'cognitive surplus': whole populations suddenly had free time in which to do things other than work. The temptation has been to relax; to do nothing.

Shirky isn't the first to suggest that this may have been the underlying reason for a generation of gin addicts in the 18th Century, and why the grander social-improvement projects of the Victorian era only occurred so much later, once people found more productive ways to manage their 'leisure' time.

The 'drug of choice' in the more recent phase of automation seems to have been television: passively consumption of TV programmes rather than actually doing something – anything – oneself. Only now, half a century later, are computer-mediated communications helping a majority of the population to become more mentally proactive. As Shirky says, even sitting in a basement pretending to be an elf (via a computer game) is better than merely letting the fictional activities of Eastenders stimulate nothing deeper than one's retinas. Better still to take photographs, write blogs, make rather than watch videos; whatever one chooses: participation rather than consumption.

To be fair, that may be slightly overstating Shirky's argument, and my own: the problem isn't TV as a whole, since a reasonable proportion of broadcast output is thought-provoking and can be inspiring. It's the sitcoms, in which the information is utterly trivial and requires absolutely no mental engagement from the audience: it's a one-way flow of pap; mere time-filler.
Shirky makes the startling observation that the entire Wikipedia project, "the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought", could be repeated in the time US TV viewers spend watching adverts each weekend.

The thesis is also a powerful argument for collectivist concepts of user participation, wisdom-of-crowds, etc., from which I as an individualist recoil, but the central premise stands: switch off your TV occasionally and do something.

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