Question: What is "cognitive surplus?"
Clay Shirky: Cognitive surplus is the somewhat unwieldy description... is my somewhat unwieldy description for the surplus free time and talents of the developed world considered as a whole. We have within the adult population of the developed world, there is well in excess of a trillion hours a year of free time. It hasn’t mainly been experienced as a surplus up until now because there was no way to pool it together in aggregate and there was no way to introduce people with disparate but complementary skills or interests until we got a network that was natively good at supporting social communication, not just as broadcast media.
So, the cognitive surplus is two different things, in a way. It is that collection of time and talents and it is the current historical fact that we can address that collection of time and talents in aggregate now that we have digital media. Whereas, before it was previously dispersed.
Question: Why is the world experiencing a cognitive surplus now?
Clay Shirky: Well, the argument... the arguments really in the book is really in three phases. It started with a conversation with a TV producer, who when I was telling her about Wikipedia, instead of being interested in how it worked or why anybody would do it, just sort of shook her head and asked me, "where do people find the time?" And I kind of snapped. I didn’t even... I wasn’t, certainly planning on saying this, it just kind of came out. I said, "Nobody works in TV gets to ask that question." TV people know where the time comes from because watching television has been a sort of half-time job for every man, woman, and child in the developed world for, you know, for decades now.
And so the first part of the argument, essentially "Where do people find the time?" is pointing out that the time has always been there. Right? From literally the structuring of the 40-hour work week, which was explicitly argued with the idea that there would be eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will, as the labor song went. We’ve always had that free time.
What we haven’t had yet are ways of pooling that free time in aggregate. So, the question "Where do people find the time?" is partly about... is partly about people not understanding that the time has always been there. And it’s partly about people understanding that we now have the tools to join that time up?
The second part of the argument after, "Where do people find the time?" is really: "Why do people find the time?" Right? "Why would anybody participate in an open source software movements, added a Wiki, upload their photos to Flicker, upload their videos to YouTube?" And there the answer is fairly simple. We’ve always had intrinsic motivations. We’ve always liked to do things with family and friends; we’ve always liked to do things as hobbies. But the radius and half-life of those activities have been really small. Right? If I’m being generous with my friends, they may experience and be happy about if I invite them over to dinner, or what have you.
But my generosity doesn’t move much beyond my house, and it doesn’t move much beyond my circle of friends. What the network has done now is given us a space where we can be generous at large scale, over long periods of time. Right? And someone who contributes to Wikipedia can do so with the sense that they’re participating in a resource that a third of a billion people rely on in a month. That’s a powerful incentive. So, we’re seeing all of these non-financial motivations bring people into environments where they are not only able to contribute their free time and talents, but actively want to.
And then the third argument, the most speculative, is really: "What do we as a society want to get out of this resource?" Now that free time can be addressed in aggregate. And there I make a distinction between communal value, where a bunch of people come together and do something together, and then they get the value from it. So, you know, you see, for example, these medical mailing lists where people who share a particular chronic illness get together and swap, sort of tips and techniques for dealing with symptoms, but also provide a lot of emotional support. This is a terrific thing, but it doesn’t really create a lot of value outside of the participants of that.
At the other end of the scale, there’s civic value. Where it's a group of people coming together to do something together, but their explicit goal is to change society. So, you look at patients like me, where people with medical conditions also come together, but there they’re not just commiserating and sharing tips and emotional support, they’re actually trying to change the way medical research works. And it seems to me, the communal value is pretty well set. Now, we have a society where creation of communal value is no longer much in doubt, but the civic value, what we want to get out of cognitive surplus as a form of civic participation, is the big open question in the book.
Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown