Tapping the Cognitive Surplus
By Clay Shirky
The sudden bounty of accessible creativity, insight, and knowledge is a public treasure, says a network guru.
Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would that surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so let’s start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit—every edit made to every article, every argument about those edits, for every language in which Wikipedia exists. That would represent something like 100 million hours of human thought.
One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. A television producer once asked me about people who volunteer to edit Wikipedia, “Where do they find the time?” The people posing this question don’t understand how tiny that entire project is relative to the aggregate free time we all possess. How much is all that time spent on Wikipedia compared with the amount of time we spend watching television? Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV every year. That represents about 2,000 Wikipedia projects’ worth of time annually. Even tiny subsets of this time are enormous: We spend roughly a hundred million hours every weekend just watching commercials.
The good news about our current, remarkable age is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be wiled away one person at a time.
Wikipedia is one well-known example; here’s another you may not have heard of, a service called Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness”) developed to help Kenyan citizens track outbursts of ethnic violence. The originator, human rights activist Ory Okolloh, imagined a service that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting of attacks with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time. She floated the idea on her blog, attracting the attention of programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia, who helped Ushahidi.com go live.
Several months later, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government compared the site’s data to that of the mainstream media and concluded that Ushahidi had been better than the big media at reporting acts of violence as they started, better at reporting acts of nonfatal violence (which are often a precursor to deaths), and better at reporting over a wide geographical area, including rural districts.
You don’t need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones can be all that’s required. But one of the most important lessons is this: Once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your techniques, over and over, around the world.
The question we now face—all of us who have access to new models of sharing—is what we’ll do with those opportunities. The question will be answered more decisively by the opportunities we provide for one another and by the culture of the groups we form than by any particular technology. The trick for creating new social media is to use those lessons as ways to improve the odds for successful harnessing of cognitive surplus.
Our media environment (that is to say, our connective tissue) has shifted. In a historical eyeblink, we have gone from a world with two different models of media—public broadcasts by professionals and private conversations between pairs of people—to a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.
This was a big deal even when digital networks were used by only an elite group of affluent citizens, but it’s becoming a much bigger deal as the connected population has spread globally and crossed into the billions. The world’s people, and the connections among us, provide the raw material for cognitive surplus. The technology will continue to improve, and the population will continue to grow, but change in the direction of more participation has already happened.
What matters most now is our imaginations. The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous; what we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation, and sharing.
About the Author
Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. He is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, Harvard Business Review, Business 2.0, and Wired.
This article was adapted from Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky. Reprinted by arrangement of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright 2010 by Clay Shirky.