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Monday, April 28, 2008

The Simpsons And Cognitive Surplus

Found this engaging article on the rise of the urban (and I would say suburban, too) life, free time and the impact of sitcoms on our cognitive surplus. I know it's kind of a crazy combo - to a degree - but the article argues for how all of these cultural factors impact our new found cognitive surplus that was gifted to us with the rise of automation, greater life expectancy, increased educational advancement, and stronger gross domestic product per capita. Here is teaser from the adapted speech that was posted on the net:

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.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there's an interesting community over here, there's an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet because there's so much complexity.

Read the rest of the article. It really is an fascinating perspective. It reminds me of some parallel thought from a book in seminary about amusing ourselves to death through entertainment (any seminary friends remember the title of that book we read for Groothuis?). It makes me wonder about what we've done with all the free time to think, be, share, serve, read, and live communally.

Hey, I'm cognitive surplus enemy #1 with the amount of tv, movies and video games that I watch and play. I don't think it's a ton (probably less than the national average especially after we got rid of cable...I miss Sportscenter), but then again I haven't taken the time to do the time I may be surprised.

(bu to Boing Boing)

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