If you’re a Clay Shirky fan you’re probably aware that he’s published a new book called Here Comes Everybody, a collection of observations and examples on how the Internet is enabling group action in fundamentally transformative ways.
Shirky spoke at O’Reilly’s Web2.0 conference last week and spun a thread from his text on “cognitive surplus.” (Text here. Video here.) His thesis is that in order to grapple with a particularly stressful stretch of time, society engages in some mind-numbing activity that, by consequence, creates a cognitive surplus. Eventually, this surplus overflows and new forms of value are created. He cites post-industrial revolution Londoners blanking out with gin, only to then build many of the modern institutions we cherish today, and post-WWII Americans sitting slack-jawed watching I Love Lucy and Gilligan’s Island, but now using the Internet to produce Wikipedia and, to a lesser order, lolcats.
A lot of folks dissed Shirky for his optimistic view of the grid and his pessimistic take on television. But I think the contrast is more for entertainment. His core argument makes perfect sense:
“…the cognitive surplus…is…so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.“
What struck me as intriguing in all this wasn’t our cognitive surplus, though. It’s our surplus of interaction.
Society has always had cognitive surplus—just unevenly distributed among the rich, the educated, or the professions. Aggregating it to the Internet changes that, of course. Centralized information spreads the value and, like compound interest, generates steady returns over time. The more people who chip in to create, upload, and share, the better the returns.
Interaction surplus, though, is new. From RSS to email, flickr to FunWalls, posts to pingbacks—we’ve never before had to deal with an abundance of two-way interaction. And unlike the subtle effect of compound interest, hooking more people up to the grid creates a personalized form of Metcalfe’s law, a signal to noise ratio that is overwhelming and, over time, numbing. Watching “connected consumers” tweet, IM, tag, upload, download and go viral is not much different than a Saturday night rave: a blur of consciousness, ephemera, and not a little dizziness.
That people use an interactive medium to become passive and numb is a tad ironic. While Shirky reflects on the upside of just 1% of us adding to a wiki and becoming active contributors to the matrix, I’m thinking of how 99% of us turn to it, consciously or unconsciously, for the same reasons we drink gin or watch Friends: to mask the pain, boredom, or drag of life.
This isn’t good or bad in that the grid doesn’t care why you engage with it so much as you include yourself as a node. Technology is always neutral. It’s us that are busy automating our neurosis and anxiety.