Gin, Sitcoms and the Cognitive Surplus

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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?

May 19, 2008 - 6:08am
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