Here’s a link to an article in Edge Magazine with the transcript of a very interesting talk by Clay Shirky called “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus”. First is the introduction, then an essay by TIM O’REILLY, and then the actual talk which is about half way down the page.
In this talk, Shirky argues that our leisure time provides a societal “cognitive surplus”. Shirky argues that TV has, up until now, absorbed much of our society’s “cognitive surplus”.
But that now there has been a small shift away from watching TV and that even such small shifts can and will have a large effect:
Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.
…And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 98 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.
I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?
Shirky provides some examples of social software
taking over from TV. My favorite is:
I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?
I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus —”How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article—fighting offstage all the while—from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.
So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.
Furthermore, Shirky argues that:
And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s message—I can do that, too—is a big change.
This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race—consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.
I didn’t agree with everything in his talk, but he makes some excellent points (especially about the lolcats). What was particularly heartening was that his talk was such a big hit. From the introduction:
When Shirky first made this assertion at a tech conference, he was astonished to see the video of the speech rocket around the web faster and more broadly than anything else he had ever said or done.