Archive for May, 2008

Cognitive Surplus

I found Clay Shirky’s address at the Web2.0 Expo today and found an intriguing argument for Web2.0 technologies (there’s an edited transcript version of it too).  It’s similar to what I’ve said about my haphazard and occasional attempts over the years to write novels:  “It’s better than watching TV.”  Shirky suggests that, even if kids are playing World of Warcraft or some other silly video game, they are at least not passively consuming the shows that he and I consumed as kids (for him–“Gilligan’s Island”, and I did watch my fair share of that as well!).  He suggests that it takes a while to figure out what to do with the “cognitive surplus” that results from economic changes that leave people with leisure time, and until we do, we waste our time getting drunk or watching mindless television (his blog post is titled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”):

Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

I mentioned in a previous post the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, who speaks of those historical moments when “surplus attention” (a different way of conceiving “cognitive surplus”) allowed for explosive creativity in the culture (5th century Greece, 15th century Florence, 19th century Paris).  Fusing Shirky and Mihaly with my concept of energonomics, we see the way that this excess psychic energy is being channeled now into experimental communicative practices of collective intelligence.

Just a note about how I came upon the Shirky speech:  I “twitter” now and follow a number of educational technologists.  One of them mentioned this speech in a “tweet” and so I pursued the link.  In my presentation on “mnemonomics,” I suggest that by connecting in this way to other people via social networking I have linked to their minds which have become an extension of my own:  “social networking as collective intelligence.”

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2 May 2008 at 10:56 pm Leave a comment


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