Clay Shirky’s “cognitive surplus”

There are people with brains, and there are people with time on their hands.  Sometimes these are the same people.  People like you.  Sure you read the paper and listen to the radio, and watch Two and a Half Men (how funny is the little kid!?) But you also deploy your surplus cognition actively: You edit Wikipedia, comment on blogs, write blogs, make Youtube videos, and play games.

Clay’s point is this: For too long, mainstream media has been on stage, delivering its monologue. People are rolling their eyes. We’re starting to heckle. The show’s not even over and half the crowd has headed to the after-party.

I fully endorse clicking this link and reading his article…

Clay reckons the cognitive surplus was ‘masked’ by a couple of passive generations of TV watching. Little by little, this is eroding. First, talkback radio, then interactive computer games, voting on TV programs, and now Web 2.0.  All of these are mutations in the DNA of the media, making it active, just like a normal social interaction.

While mass-media still tends to monopolise the conversation, online is just like real-life. Peeps are chatting, shopping, blogging about their zits and watching ice-skating crashes on youtube.  And people pitch in. They pitch in like crazy. There is no economic explanation for the hours sown into Linux, Open OfficeWikihow,and Yahoo answers.

Wikipedia, according to Clay’s estimates, represents the culmination of 100 million hours of thought. But if this seems a lot, wait for the next one…

In the US, two hundred billion (200 000 000 000) hours of TV are watched each year. If this were to fall by one percent, that provides enough capacity to make twenty new Wikipedias every year.  Communications technology means spare capacity has been organised into ‘an architecture of production’.  While most of the productive potential is currently focused on feverish lolcat construction, it holds huge potential.  Like the internet, when this phenomenon arrives for real, it will have been around already for ages

It’s not just theory – we can recognise these changes in front of us.  Any online article that doesn’t have room for comments feels like a wasted opportunity. Even movies can be shaped – Snakes on a Plane was shaped by audience interaction even before they saw it.

A new crowd-sourced radio show on Austereo will allow the playlist to be selected by voters texting in, and allow unpopular tracks to be voted off, midsong. The Guardian even arranged for thousands of readers to review 460,000 pieces of documentation for MP’s expense claims, fueling a range of scandals. I love it.

Think about it. What interactive media have you used this week?  What do you reckon will come out in the future? Share your thoughts below!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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