Response to “Cognitive Surplus”
Clay Shirky’s chapters, “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus” and “Means,” define and discuss what exactly it means for a society to have a cognitive surplus. Essentially, it is the society’s potential (to do whatever) that stems from “the world’s cumulative free time.” It is “raw material” that we not only generate but we are responsible for its deployment.
To explain this concept, Shirky talks about the Gin Craze of London in the late 18th century with the advent of industrialization and urbanization. At the time, the sudden birth of free time - time away from work to “do what we will” - was readily complemented by the introduction of an addictive yet escapist substance -gin. People used it to pass the time in an altered state, with obvious social consequences. Shirky discusses it as a response to a larger civic problem (disillusionment with and adjustment to a city lifestyle), which is how many policy makers view drug addiction today as well.
He then goes on to trace the evolution of our use of free time to the introduction of TV. A similar form of escapism, TV negated normal social interaction even more as people lived vicariously through the characters on the screen, themselves not thinking a drop about anything. Ultimately, Shirky arrives at the Internet, which has once again changed the paradigm of free time into a more interactive experience. Although it does not promote social interaction in the traditional sense, it has prompted a critical mass of people to generate media instead of passively absorbing it. The recent adverse reactions to changes in social media interfaces, such as the introduction of the Facebook timeline, also reveals that people are more than just content consumers - they are highly critical of their media.
I think Shirky puts an interesting spin on the Internet debate. Many people would consider use of the web a mind-numbing activity akin to television. But in fact, Shirky is right when he emphasizes the enormous amount of user-generated content and interaction as the defining characteristic of today’s web use. Granted, we don’t have as much control as we think over the way we share things on the Internet - for example, everyone shares photos, status updates, etc., in whatever way the host site chooses to format it (i.e. Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.). However, I do think the sort of “template” format of the Internet is spurring idea generation in a different way: take the case of WikiLeaks. The site takes advantage of users’ established trust in the truthfulness of Wikipedia by using the same look and user-generated format, but changes the purpose to create a platform for political awareness, openness, and criticism.
I believe we can still push the boundaries of the Internet much further, incorporating it more seamlessly into our daily lives. Perhaps there will be a way for the Internet to promote traditional social interaction - already we have seen examples of how social media influences real behavior in the case of the Occupy Movement, which was largely spread through hashtags and keywords. Maybe soon there will be no screen to separate us from the people and the media we share, and the idea of being bounded by the computer screen will become obsolete. At that point, people’s free time - the cognitive surplus - may once again evolve into something different.