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Gin, Sitcoms and the Cognitive Surplus

The cognitive surplus is the reason this blog exists, and likely the reason you're reading it right now. According to author Clay Shirky, it's also responsible for things like the Industrial Revolution, and it may be about to change the way we live in an even more dramatic way. The classic example of cognitive surplus is this: when British society started becoming more urban and crowding into London in the mid 18th century, it took people awhile to realize they were sitting on a cognitive gold mine; all those minds together in one place had an unprecedented potential to accomplish great things. But they were so freaked out by the sudden disappearance of the way of life their families had cultivated for a thousand years, and at finding themselves stuck in the increasingly loud, rank, dangerous city of London, that instead of taking advantage of their new situation, they spent a lot of time drinking gin. In fact, Shirky argues, they went on a generation-long bender, so extreme that "the stories from that era are amazing -- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London." No joke:

In the 18th century there was an epidemic of gin drinking in England. Rot-gut gin was destroying lives and families. Gin shops sold their product for one penny a pint. People died in vast numbers from cirrhosis of the liver. In London there were twice as many burials as baptisms. William Hogarth's savage portrait of Gin Lane in 1751 (above) stressed the terrible dissolution of the time: a house is falling down, a corpse is being put into a cart and a woman is so drunk that she is dropping her baby over a railing.

Flash forward to the 1950s.

The war is over, Americans are cooling their watchingTV1950ent1.jpgheels back home, enjoying something they never experienced during the Depression or the War that followed: free time. And kind of a lot of it, really; in other words, a cognitive surplus. And what should come along in response to this new national surplus? The Golden Age of Television, of course. So according to this hopefully not-too-tortured analogy, Americans' TV in the 50s was a bit like Londers' gin pushcarts in the 1760s; it was a way to spend a cognitive surplus we didn't quite know what to do with yet. But instead of an Industrial Revolution coming along to take advantage of our cognitive surplus in a useful way, Shirky argues, we got the internet. Here's where this train of thought gets really interesting:

So how big is our surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

All of which, naturally, got me thinking about my own personal surplus. Sure, we all feel busy, but once you start adding up the hours I've spent freaking out over Lost or shredding the competition in multiplayer online Guitar Hero, it becomes significant. I did a back-of-napkin calculation of my own, and figured that I've spent roughly 1,000 hours blogging for mental_floss since 2006. (I'm sure the time I've spent watching TV and movies is at least twice that, if not more.) But instead of figuring out what else I could be doing with that time, I'll ask you guys:

What's your annual cognitive surplus? Is there anything you'd rather be doing with it?

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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
Netflix
Netflix

Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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The First-Ever Troop of Homeless Girl Scouts Just Crushed Their Cookie Sales Goal
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iStock

Selling 32,500 boxes of cookies in a single week would be noteworthy for any team of Girl Scouts, but it's an especially sweet achievement for Troop 6000: The New York City-based chapter is the first-ever Girl Scout troop composed entirely of children living in homeless shelters.

According to NBC News, this season marked the first time the troop took part in the organization's annual cookie sale tradition. In early April, they received exclusive permission to set up shop inside the Kellogg's Café in Union Square. They kicked off their inaugural stand sale aiming to sell at least 6000 boxes of cookies: At the end of six days, they had sold more than 32,500.

Some customers waited in line an hour to purchase boxes from the history-making young women. Others gave their money directly to the troop, collectively donating over $15,000 to fund trips and activities. After purchasing their cookies, customers could also buy special Girl Scout cookie-inspired menu items from the Kellogg's store, with all proceeds going to Troop 6000.

The troop formed in 2016 as a collaboration between the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, Mayor de Blasio, and the city Department of Homeless Services. Meetings are held in shelters across the city, and many of the troop leaders, often mothers of the scouts, are homeless women themselves. About 40 percent of New York's homeless population are children, and Troop 6000 had to expand last summer to accommodate a flood of new recruits. Today, there are about 300 girls enrolled in the program.

[h/t NBC News]

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