How should we spend our cognitive surplus?

I read all the time.

And, every once in a while, I read something that blows my mind, like the chart in Outliers that details how much of the achievement gap between rich and poorer kids accrues during summer vacation (and how well schools do at closing it, really, during the year).

And this, from Cognitive Surplus:

Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year (p. 10).

This is not a TV-bashing post. I’m sure that there are some wonderful things on television. The point of the book, and my reflection on it, is simply to point out that watching television has been a default use of one of the greatest expanding resources of our age: free time. And that our use of time, when aggregated as technology now gives us the capability to do, may be key to changing how we approach the challenges that face us.

One of the key pieces in the book comes early, on page 17, as Clay Shirky describes the lessons learned from projects such as Ushahidi (my paraphrases):

  • People want to make the world a better place.
  • They will help when they are invited.
  • Cheap, flexible tools remove many of the barriers to collective action.
  • We can harness this cognitive surplus–the time and brainpower freed up because most of us don’t have to labor all day just to eat–to dramatically improve our lives, and the lives of others.

    Shirky is careful to emphasize that such positive impacts will not automatically flow from the existence of tools that facilitate sharing, connect people to those of like mind, and allow people’s passions an outlet. After all, the same technology that gave us Ushahidi birthed ICanHasCheezburger (disclaimer: my husband’s all-time favorite site). What we need are civic applications of these tools, in order to create real value. Civic sharing, as Shirky defines it, is about really trying to transform society, not just generating a sense of community for participants or even adding some knowledge to the public sphere. We’re going to “get what we celebrate” (p. 176), and so those of us with civic ideas for how to direct this cognitive surplus need to register our desires now, no offense to my husband’s great affinity for ironic traffic signs and email pranks.

    So, picking up on this idea, that we should treat those 200 billion hours a year as a shared resource that can and should be put to work, I plan to use some of my own free time to create a sort of “to-do list” for my fellow Americans, a “honey-do” that might prompt us to turn away from the television and, in the process, realize some of the good life that was supposed to come in this age of leisure. I want to hear from you–what are the best ideas you’ve found for capitalizing on this surplus, and what would you like to see our society collectively tackle in our free time? And, really, 200 billion hours is a lot of time, so if we can carve out just a little bit of it, I agree with Shirky, we could make some really good things happen.

    I want to hear your ideas for how to harness the potential power of this tremendous resource–what are the tools, and the motives, and the opportunities that we need to be developing? How does our culture currently support such collective civic action, and how does it discourage it? On the issues on which you work most closely, how would you use some of your neighbors’ free time to make a real difference (be those your physical neighbors, or those around the world)?

    And, of course, the critical question: how do we make such actions compelling enough to lure people away from Shark Week?

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  • One response to “How should we spend our cognitive surplus?

    1. Pingback: Weekend Links | Fighting Monsters

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