Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Cognitive Surplus Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Every single year for the second half of the 20th century, the amount of television watched by humanity increased. Collectively, we now watch more than one trillion hours of television every year – something not entirely unlike, as Clay Shirky sees it, tipping the free time of the world's educated citizenry (their "cognitive surplus") down an intellectual plughole. It's not that television is evil, or even bad. It's just that, as a medium, it's incredibly good at soaking up leisure and producing very few tangible results. It tells stories; it makes people feel less alone, it passes the time. It is, Shirky ventures, a little like gin in 1720s London, helping people cope with modernity by gently blurring the edges of their reality.

The point of departure for this is an unprecedented fact. For the first time in history, the amount of television being watched by a younger generation is decreasing rather than increasing annually. Why? Because time is being poured instead into interactive media, and above all into online activities. The key word here is "activities", for the defining feature of new media is action.

Shirky argues that the sudden lowering of the cost of collaboration brought by the internet represents revolutionary new kinds of creativity and problem-solving.

Americans alone watch about 200 billion hours of television a year. Shirky notes that’s about 2,000 times the total human hours that have gone so far into creating Wikipedia.

Not that every collaborative project could be a Wikipedia, of course. But what even the most spurious uses of socially networked media can offer equal opportunities for all simultaneously to consume, produce and share. Shirky points out that these three activities are fundamental impulses that broadcast media have until recently served in a deeply unbalanced manner.
The key to the radical nature of the social change all this implies is scale. If you think 200 billion hours of television is 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 involved, the collective leverage that can be brought to bear on any particular project or problem is colossal. Whether it's "couch surfers" pooling resources to create an international network of sofas for each other to sleep on, or the open-source community of programmers that maintains Apache, a free program that now drives more than 60% of the servers constituting the internet itself, the world's collective cognitive surplus is already being put to transforming uses. And the fun, Shirky says, is only just beginning.
There are those who have proved either allergic or immune to Shirky's particular brand of optimism, arguing that the power of social media is extremely limited in the face of many intractable real-world problems, and can even exacerbate them, both by making it easier to track activists and by displacing energies that might have been better expended elsewhere. To accuse Shirky of preaching a panacea, though, is to misunderstand the simplest fact about the emerging technological and social landscape he describes: that it represents not so much a replacement of existing systems as a restoration of many far older and more intimate kinds of human relations.
As a route towards action, rather than an escape from it, technology and media have never looked more potent than they do today. And perhaps the most amazing fact about Shirky's incisive manual for building a better world is this: it's just possible that everything he promises may be true.
Above excerpted from The Guardian.

Some notes from the book. is a website for literary conversation. All you do is type and click the button marked “Publish,” and Voilà!, it is published.
The 1991 book by Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, celebrated and lamented the role women’s magazines play in women’s lives. They provide a place where a female perspective can be taken for granted, but it is distorted by advertisers. Advertisers are the censors. If sponsor do not like the messages, they will not advertise and the magazines will fail.
Nik Gowing, BBC reporter and author of “Skyful of Lies” tells a story of media change. In the hours after the London subway and bus bombings of July 7, 2005, the UK government maintained that the damage had been caused by some sort of power surge. Within the first 80 minutes in the public domain, there were already 1,300 blog posts signaling that explosives were the cause. The UK government quickly modified their story.

The Ultimate Game was first tried in 1982 by Werner Güth, Rolf Schmittberger and Bernd Schwarze at the University of Cologne. It’s been repeated countless times around the world. The Ultimate Game is a two person interaction. Imagine you and a stranger. Each has a role. The stranger is the proposer and you are the responder. The stranger is given $10 and told to divide up the $10. Part of the money the stranger keeps and the other part goes to you. Once the split is proposed, the offer cannot change. You only have one choice. Accept or reject. If you accept, the proposer keeps their share and you get the offered amount. If you refuse, you both get nothing.
Neoclassical economics predicts the outcome as follows: the stranger proposes keeping $9 and giving you $1. You would accept, because $1 is better than nothing.  So the theory goes.
In the tests, this is what actually happens. The proposers generally offer $4 to $5, which the responder generally accepts. When the proposer offers lower amounts, the responders typically refuses, hence, neither party gets anything. The lower amount the offer, the greater likelihood of refusal. This shocked neoclassical economists. Versions have been run with hundreds of dollars at stake, and tighter elimination of possible retribution, class, age, sex or cultural differences. In the Ultimate Game, people behave as if their relationship matters, even if they are told that it doesn’t. People are terrible at acting as if we are purely isolated because such isolation is rare and unnatural. The Ultimate Game shows that we are incapable of behaving as if we weren’t members of a larger society. We gauge the effects of our actions with membership in that society in mind.

Johannes Gutenberg’s best-known work was his bible. He printed fewer than 200 copies. He may have printed these bibles secretly. In the 1450’s his major productivity was printing indulgences. An indulgence, in Catholic theology, is a way to reduce the amount of time a person spends in purgatory for sins that have already been forgiven. The Catholic Church taught that sinning runs up the time you have to wait after death to get into heaven. Indulgences are a way to reduce that wait. You get an indulgence by making a donation to the Church. (Some people, like Martin Luther, did not like this practice and was part of the reason behind his posting the Ninety-Five Theses of the church door in Wittenberg in 1517).  In Guttenberg’s time, indulgences were written by the Church. Income to the Church from indulgences   was constrained by the speed at which they could be written by hand. Demand for indulgences was greater than supply.  Enter Gutenberg. He printed indulgences by the thousand. The movable type printing press offered society a faster cheaper way to do what it was already doing. And he did print a few bibles on the side.

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