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Spending Our Cognitive Surplus

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For the large swath of humanity that lives in modern industrial societies, the great existential question is simply this: What are we to do with our free time? For as busy as we think we are, we are nowhere as busy as people were before labor laws, or when they had to build their own shelter and grow their own food, or--going all the way back--had to keep from being food.

How much free time do we have? Clay Shirky, in a recent TED talk (given in conjunction with his new book), pegged the worldwide amount of spare time at a trillion hours a year. When all that time is coupled with the freely available technologies that allow people to spontaneously collaborate on large-scale projects, and with what Shirky says is the natural human instinct to create and to share, the result is "cognitive surplus"--a powerful new resource that can transform the world. In the twentieth century, people didn't have much else to do with their free time than watch Gilligan's Island, but today we can contribute to Wikipedia and build websites that allow the world to track ethnic violence in Kenya.

Of course, we also have LOLcats. But, Shirky says, even the person who puts a caption on a cat photo is creating something and thus has crossed the great divide between consumer and producer. We weren't couch potatoes because we wanted to be, he argues, but because we didn't have to tools to let us do the creating that people intrinsically love to do.

There's no doubt that Shirky's on to something important. But he risks conflating two very separate issues. One is how much people choose to produce and consume. The other is the availability and the power of tools that let us do either. Shirky's right that those inclined to create have more possibilities than ever before; today, you can run not just a software company from your living room, but a manufacturing company, thanks to advanced design applications and a web of contract suppliers in China.

But just because there is more possibility than ever to do something constructive doesn't mean that everyone, or even most people, will grab that opportunity. Even if we count posting a LOLcat as a creative act, there are many more people looking at LOLcats than there are creating them. One of the most popular videos on YouTube, "Charlie bit my finger--again!" depicting a boy sticking his fingers in his little brother's mouth, has been viewed 211 million times. Something that took 56 seconds to create--and which was only intended to be seen by the boys' godfather--has sucked up the equivalent of 1600 people working 40 hours a week for a year. Now that's leverage.

In one of the thought experiments in Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman imagines a world in which people live forever. In that world, he posits, the population naturally divides itself into two groups, the Nows and the Laters. The Laters reason that since they have the luxury of time, there is no need to do anything right away: "The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life." The Nows, on the other hand, are in perpetual motion: "The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly."

Any accounting of cognitive surplus needs to be balanced with a tally of cognitive drain. The numbers may show that technology does not change us as much as allow us to become more of whom we already are.

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