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Designing for the Cognitive Surplus

Designing for the Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky has suggested a term for a newly visible natural resource: he calls it the cognitive surplus. This surplus is created when we turn our attention away from television and allow ourselves apply our minds to anything else. Just as we are reckoning with other parts of the digital economy and their effects, viagra we now have to not only calculate the potential effects of the redistribution of attention and the possibility of an increasingly large cognitive surplus: we have to start designing for it.

Why single out television? Because in the aggregate we spend more time watching TV than we do doing anything else. It has long been one of the world’s most troubling statistics: the amount of time that people spend watching TV. Shirky claims that in the United States alone people cumulatively watch 200 billion hours of TV. Like so much in the media business, find those numbers, and the behaviors underneath them, are changing. More people in more places are changing how they spend their screen time. In some cases, time away from telly is being bought up by the new screens: computers and mobile phones, even game consoles, which may technically use the TV screen, but have been weaning youth off the regularly scheduled programming of media networks. Where has all the attention gone?

One answer is that significant amount of the time people were spending watching TV even five years ago is now being spent online. The difference that that makes is remarkable: it is the difference between no You Tube (launched in 2005) and the fact that people are now contributing over 10, 000 hours of video a day to the service (equivalent to the output of 385 always on TV channels); it is the difference between no Flickr (launched in 2004) and the public sharing of over 3 billion photos. It is the difference between no Wikipedia (launch in 2001) and the world’s largest source of collaboratively produced encyclopedic knowledge with almost 9 million registered contributors and nearly 200,000 active contributors (people who have contributed in the last 30 days).

As much time as people are spending online, significant amounts of this new cognitive surplus is being spent in face to face interactions that people were not having 5 years ago. And while it is more and more that these meetings start and are coordinated online, it is supremely important that these people are getting together in real-time in the “meat-space”. But people are not just meeting for coffee or dates, nor are they simply meeting one-on-one and their gathering are not solely or even primarily recreational. People are organizing.

Designing for the cognitive surplus is taking surprising turns. The growth of Twitter, the emergence of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGs) being turned to serious issues like energy dependence (, social change (, or global crisis ( As we turn this cognitive surplus away from TV, we are learning, sharing and organizing in unprecedented ways and numbers. We do not know where this is going or what is coming next.

But, paradoxically, though we cannot be prepared for our future, we can design for it. It fact, that is precisely what we each and all are doing anytime we interact, collaborate or participate with others on the platfoms that enable us to search, share, organize, communicate and create.

You can find video of Clay Shirky talking about these ideas here. And a key exerpt of the talk in text here.

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