What are you doing with your Cognitive Surplus?

Last week, Clay Shirky, the Internet commentator and NYU academic spoke at the Watershed in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas.

A couple of members of the Virtual Training Suite team were lucky enough to get to see Shirky talk about his latest book / idea – the Cognitive Surplus. The central idea is that as we have more free time the Internet can enable us to collaborate – this isn’t necessarily a new thing and Shirky argues that the post war age may be seen as an outlier when we were turned into passive consumers, rather than being the natural collaborators we were before TV came along.

To illustrate the potential scale for this collaborative effort, Shirky estimates that about 100 million hours of effort that has gone into producing Wikipedia over the last decade, yet 200 billion hours of TV are watched in the US each and every year – you could produce another Wikipedia sized website just from the time spent watching adverts on American TV each weekend.

Other examples of online collaboration cited by Shirky included:

  • The Consortium of Loose and Pub Going Women who united online to defeat the suppression of women’s rights in India.
  • The PatientsLikeMe website that brings together those who suffer from various conditions and encourages them to share their medical data to improve drug trials and treatments.
  • The Ushahidi platform that was built to bring together reports of violence and repression around the Kenyan elections and has since been used in a number of other countries, proving that not all these innovations have to come out of California.

The Q&A session explored the concept of “peak” Cognitive Surplus, how it could be applied to reduce a budget by 11% and whether technology is a cause of such change, or just an enabler.

The 90 minute video is split fairly evenly between an initial lecture and questions from the audience. Shirky also reflects on some of the ideas in his talk at the Festival of Ideas website, while you can keep up-to-date with his writings at Shirky.com

Other write-ups of the talk are available from:

Quite how you harness this Cognitive Surplus in education is a tricky question, but one Shirky has shown to be worth reflecting upon.