buildcontext

I'm ready to build for the "cognative surplus" - thoughts from the Clay Shirky - Web 2.0 Expo Keynote

Shortly after the keynote by Tim O’Reilly at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week we were treated to a talk with Clay Shirky author of Here Comes Everybody, his talk for me crystallized why the phenomenon of social interaction, sharing and co-creation is thriving on the web today and why this “little” emergent concept might just be getting started changing the world.

Thankfully the talk was captured on video by NewsBlaze.com: Clay Shirky at Web 2.0 Expo (Video 17 minutes) and just now transcribed by Clay himself.

Foundation

Clay began foreshadowing this story with a story from the early industrial revolution as we put our collective minds and “civil surplus” to use creating libraries and museums, education for children, and electing leaders; that massive change from rural to urban and industrial ways of life taxed the minds of everyone involved… he told us the “cognitive heatsink” in that time was gin, dissipating the brain cycles and complication of changing from overwhelming our minds.

Fast forward to the 20th century as more and more of the workforce started working 8 to 5, Monday to Friday a new concept emerged… free time. With this new free time, we were taxed to figure out what to do with it. We needed to fill it… along came the new “cognative heatsink” television “dissipating thinking that may have built up and caused society to overheat”, successfully filling our time with entertaining stories and calming those pesky brain cycles as we adapted to the new way of working.

Human thought… burnt to a crisp.

Clay tells us today our “cognative heatsink” of choice, television, consumes 200 billion hours of human thought in the US alone, to put that in context Clay did some back of the envelope math that tells us the entirety of Wikipedia, all the pages, edits, talk pages, lines of code and the translation of every language is the equivalent of 100 million hours of human thought… That’s right, our “cognative heatsink” today burns about 2000 Wikipedia’s of human thought a year, in the US we spend 100 million hours (1 Wikipedia) a weekend just watching the ads.

This all builds to the premise, how do we harness this cognitive surplus and really to what magnitude could this change our society? He believes that media is a triathlon - “people like to consume but they also like to produce and they like to share”… but often we, the creators of the current web, don’t always allow or design for all three. Clay says “The interesting thing about a surplus is you don’t know what to do with them at first, you can’t… hence the sitcoms and the gin…” and that’s ok, but now that we are realizing it and there are a few good examples and experiments out there, but what are we ready to do now to put this surplus to work?

“Even a small change could have huge ramifications, lets say that everything stayed 99% the same, people watched 99% the television they used to but 1% is carved out for producing and sharing, the internet connected population watches roughly 1 trillion hours of TV a year that’s about 5 times the size of the US in terms of consumption… that is 10,000 Wikipedia projects a year work of participation… I think that’s going to be a big deal, don’t you?”

Exposing the possibility of participation.

Clay’s premise: “It’s always better to do something than do nothing…”
Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan screws something up and they didn’t? I saw that one; I saw that one a lot when I was growing up.

Grown men sitting in their basements pretending to be elves [referring to World of Warcraft]… At least they were doing something!

Even Lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter by little captions, hold out a invitation to participation, when you see a Lolcat what it essentially says is if you have some san-serif fonts on your computer you can play this game too… And thats a big change, right?

I could do that too…

Building to a crescendo, what are we doing here? “We’re looking for the mouse.”

Clay tells a story from a guest at his dinner party:
“… a dad sitting with his 4 year old daughter watching a DVD, in the middle of the movie she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen… seems like a cute moment, maybe she was seeing if Dora was back there, but that isn’t what she was doing… she was rooting around and the cables, Dad said ‘What are you doing?’… she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said ‘looking for the mouse’”…

“Here’s what 4 year olds know a screen that ships without a mouse ships broken… Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for…”

“It’s also become my motto, when people ask what we [the collective industry] are doing… ‘we’re looking for the mouse’ we are going to look every place a user or reader or listener or a viewer has been locked out has been served a passive or fixed or canned experience and ask ourselves if we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus we now recognize could we make a good thing happen… I am betting we can.”

Building My Context

Clay’s story is both easily relatable to what we are seeing on the web and eye opening at the same time when you realize we haven’t even scratched the surface. The amount of time we burn off is staggering and the problems we could solve with that surplus are great. Working every day on the web we all know that Wikipedia itself along with other examples will be huge markers of our time, the level of collaboration and connectedness of the world it took to build these initiatives is unprecedented but the question always is creeping around “is this a fad?,” “who really does this stuff?,” “is this sustainable?,” “would I let those people edit my stuff? they’ll wreck it.” Clay’s story in part shows that the collective brain that is our society is looking for some exercise and genuinely wants to contribute; they need us as to open up, give up control and ask for help… to build participation and collaboration at the core of what we do and not as a bolt on non-integrated side forum to burn off their cycles.

Much of what we do, even as for profit corporations, is play in markets of quality of knowledge, quality of perspective and trust all of which could be bolstered significantly by listening and participating in an unfiltered way with any collaborator willing to pick up the mouse and keyboard. In the next projects I consult on, I promise to find a way to include “the mouse” in the box as a design goal rather than a reactionary bolt on.

Thank you Clay for the great talk…

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