Clay Sharky on the Idea of Cognitive Surplus

Posted in Economics, Media, Technology by Arasmus on September 8, 2008

Here is a video of a speech given by Clay Shirky, author of the book Here Comes Everybody, at this year’s Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.  Shirky elaborates the idea that our society has enjoyed a bounty of leisure since the Second World War but that it has not known what to do with that “cognitive surplus” until now.  As a result of our new found ability to contribute rather than merely consume media, we can now covert that cognitive suprlus into more productive uses ranging from Wikipedia to mailing lists etc.  Shirky tries to estimate the size of this cognitive surplus and set it in context.  He estimates that creating Wikipedia took about 100 million hours of human thought.  By contrast, Americans spent 200 billion hours watching television every year (100 million hours every weekend watching ads), the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedia projects per year.  An increase in productivity of just a fraction of that surplus could have a profound impact on the way we live and the institutions we create.  For example, the internet connected population currently watches one trillion hours of television per year.  Just 1% of that time spent on say Wikipedia-like projects could produce as many as 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year.

Its an interesting idea but it assumes that an hour of thought is equal to an hour of thought which it clearly is not.  An hour spent by a professor of anthropology on the extinction of the Maya civilization is more valuable than an hour spent by me on the same subject.  We see this difference in the marketplace all the time; a lawyer can sell an hour of thought for a much higher value than a traffic warden.  Nonetheless, I still find the idea of a cognitive surplus attractive, its utilization plausible and its potential exciting.