Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky:

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."

So how big is that 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.

I will add: the transformation of our cognitive attention isn't about television vs. Wikipedia. If you look at the most successful television shows of the past five or ten years, as opposed to the ten or twenty or thirty years before that, we've shifted from a kind of cool or loose or detatched participation -- "water cooler shows" like Seinfeld or Friends or The Real World or whatever -- to shows with very intense participation, online and off, ranging from Lost to American Idol to The Sopranos. In other words, the most successful television shows are sparking and harnessing -- or at least benefitting from -- the surplus value created by their communities.


Andrew said...

As a tangent: I would love to see some sort of study that breaks down growth in "leisure time" in society and how the allocation of that time from say the Renaissance rise of the middle class (we'll say Shakespeare's time, for my own interest) through today.

A lot of extrapolation would have to be done for pre-modern eras, but I think it would be fascinating.

Specific to my interest is the number of story-related events that people experienced in an average year.

Large spectacle story events for the masses used to be the theatre, with smaller stories delivered as part of the oral tradition. In contemporary society have movies and TV assumed those respective roles with specific correlation, or do people now consume proportionally more stories to leisure time? I suspect the latter, though that's just speculation without knowing more about story telling traditions in pubs, etc. of Renaissance/preindustrial society.

With so many different stories available essentially on demand in the contemporary era, I'm thinking our narrative market has been saturated.

Of course for me this all relates to rebuilding audiences for live theatre in one way or another.

Tim said...

There's at least some reason to believe that many people in the Renaissance, especially at the bottom of the social ladder, had much more leisure time than the working poor do now. This is largely a function of the seasonal agricultural economy, which demanded very intense work for short periods of time.

Another thing to consider is the transition from a folk society to a mass society. Renaissance-era peasants may have had lots of time to kill, but they didn't have very many resources to employ -- hence storytelling, music, gaming, dance, and drinking, all things which require relatively little entertainment capital. Even in the last-century, we've moved from a more homespun entertainment tradition to one that is universal, passive (at least until recently), and technology-dependent.

The last point I would make is that you can't discount spectacle without story. From lynchings and gladiator fights to football and American Idol, there's a long tradition of mass entertainment that has nothing to do with story at all.

Andrew said...

Your point about leisure time in the working poor is well taken.

Still, with the rise in average life expectancy, I would venture to guess that over a lifetime the average person in industrialized nation could have have maintained equal leisure time and possibly made gains. I would have to do more reading to say for sure, but in large part I imagine it's trade dependent.

In any case, the time is certainly allocated differently: depending on one's economic status or living conditions, the night in Renaissance society wasn't necessarily that useful.

So with more usable time after dark, television is a way to spend leisure without significant investment of capital (ignoring the cost of cable tv) and provides a wide variety of possibilities. It almost encompasses all the homebrew entertainments that you list, but without the pesky social interaction.

There was an article linked to from arts and letters daily a few years ago that proclaimed "vaudeville is dead, and television is the box the buried it in." This as well speaks to mass media's slow overthrow of localized entertainment.

Spectacle of course is its own beast- though let's remember that Marlowe's and Shakespeare's plays may well have been performed in the same venues as bear baiting. Even the impresarios selling stories balanced them with the value of spectacle.

Many of the kinds of spectacle you cite have story imposed on them these days... No football game can occur without the human interest pieces framing it, the quarterback who has to prove his mettle, the one who is about to retire, etc. Is this increasing still our narrative saturation? Can't we just watch a game anymore? Or could we ever...

Anyway, extending my hypothetical study further, I'd love to see the breakdown of time spent on spectacular entertainments as well.

In essence what I'm looking for is marketing research that would go back the Rose Theatre. I'm not likely to find it, but that doesn't quash my curiosity.