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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Win a Trip to Any National Park By Instagramming Your Travels
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If you're planning out your summer vacation, make sure to add a few national parks to your itinerary. Every time you share your travels on Instagram, you can increase your chances of winning a VIP trip for two to the national park of your choice.

The National Park Foundation is hosting its "Pic Your Park" sweepstakes now through September 28. To participate, post your selfies from visits to National Park System (NPS) properties on Instagram using the hashtag #PicYourParkContest and a geotag of the location. Making the trek to multiple parks increases your points, with less-visited parks in the system having the highest value. During certain months, the point values of some sites are doubled. You can find a list of participating properties and a schedule of boost periods here.

Following the contest run, the National Park Foundation will decide a winner based on most points earned. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip for the winner and a guest to any NPS property within the contiguous U.S. Round-trip airfare and hotel lodging are included. The reward also comes with a 30-day lease of a car from Subaru, the contest's sponsor.

The contest is already underway, with a leader board on the website keeping track of the competition. If you're looking to catch up, this national parks road trip route isn't a bad place to start.

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15 Dad Facts for Father's Day
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Gather 'round the grill and toast Dad for Father's Day—the national holiday so awesome that Americans have celebrated it for more than a century. Here are 15 Dad facts you can wow him with today.

1. Halsey Taylor invented the drinking fountain in 1912 as a tribute to his father, who succumbed to typhoid fever after drinking from a contaminated public water supply in 1896.

2. George Washington, the celebrated father of our country, had no children of his own. A 2004 study suggested that a type of tuberculosis that Washington contracted in childhood may have rendered him sterile. He did adopt the two children from Martha Custis's first marriage.

3. In Thailand, the king's birthday also serves as National Father's Day. The celebration includes fireworks, speeches, and acts of charity and honor—the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals.

4. In 1950, after a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's concert a negative review, the president came out swinging: "Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

5. A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin. Pooh was based on Robin's teddy bear, Edward, a gift Christopher had received for his first birthday, and on their father/son visits to the London Zoo, where the bear named Winnie was Christopher's favorite. Pooh comes from the name of Christopher's pet swan.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was (for a short time) Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law. Rivera's marriage to Edith Vonnegut ended in 1974 because of his womanizing. Her ever-protective father was quoted as saying, "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face." He also included an unflattering character named Jerry Rivers (a chauffeur) in a few of his books.

7. Andre Agassi's father represented Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as a boxer.

8. Charlemagne, the 8th-century king of the Franks, united much of Western Europe through military campaigns and has been called the "king and father of Europe" [PDF]. Charlemagne was also a devoted dad to about 18 children, and today, most Europeans may be able to claim Charlemagne as their ancestor.

9. The voice of Papa Smurf, Don Messick, also provided the voice of Scooby-Doo, Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, and Astro and RUDI on The Jetsons.

10. In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame from his 12-year-old daughter while in orbit. The gift was made possible by RadioShack, which filmed the presentation of the gift for a TV commercial.

11. The only father-daughter collaboration to hit the top spot on the Billboard pop music chart was the 1967 hit single "Something Stupid" by Frank & Nancy Sinatra.

12. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies.

13. If show creator/producer Sherwood Schwartz had gotten his way, Gene Hackman would have portrayed the role of father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.

14. The Stevie Wonder song "Isn't She Lovely" is about his newborn daughter, Aisha. If you listen closely, you can hear Aisha crying during the song.

15. Dick Hoyt has pushed and pulled his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. Rick cannot speak, but using a custom-designed computer he has been able to communicate. They ran their first five-mile race together when Rick was in high school. When they were done, Rick sent his father this message: "Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn't disabled anymore!"

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