Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus That Isn’t There
It seems to me far from right that Clay Shirky should write a book about the internet without first having spent a few minutes surfing it. In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, he lays out his case that as we turn off our televisions and log onto the internet, we are tapping into an enormous amount of brainpower that was being wasted watching Access Hollywood, Dancing With The Stars and Jersey Shore and using it to do all manner of useful things. His leading piece of evidence is Wikipedia, which he calculates to be the product of 100 million hours of human thought. Indeed, he says that if we tapped into the cognitive surplus of just the United States for one year, we could create 2,000 Wikipedia-scale projects.
Nothing wrong with his math. Plenty wrong with his example. First, if we were inclined to create 2,000 comparably “useful” projects per year, we would. This has not happened, nor will it. Second, let’s not simply accept that Wikipedia is an unalloyed gift to humanity. This the site that – I could choose from a more or less unlimited number of examples here – falsely published defamatory content (by its own admission) that implicated John Siegenthaler, publisher of the Tennessean and former administrative assistant in the Kennedy Administration in the assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy. It took more than four months for the error to be corrected, and Siegenthaler wound up writing an article about his ordeal and the pain it caused him in USA Today. Lest you think this is an isolated incident, look at the number of results Google provides for a search of the following terms:
+wikipedia +slander – 149,000
+wikipedia +lies -4,860,000
+wikipedia +mistakes – 1,860,00
Wikipedia doesn’t always get it wrong, but it gets it wrong a lot. Enough so that we should hesitate to crown it as the greatest collection of knowledge in human history. Even though it has tightened up its editorial standards a bit over the years, they remain far from rigorous. Reader beware.
Of course, Shirky is right that some other lovely things are happening online. People are coming together and raising money for charity and doing global sing-alongs of “Kumbaya” and so forth. But let’s be honest about what far more of them are doing. They’re going to icanhascheezburger.com. They’re looking at porn. They’re playing games. How much of our supposed cognitive surplus is spent on video games? In March 2009, bungle.com reported that the one billionth match of Halo 3 had been played. All together that’s 63 centuries of game play. And that’s just for one title. The numbers get out of hand pretty quickly when you start piling on Grand Theft Auto, Sims et al. Add in Facebook and Twitter and you are in danger of surpassing the power of most calculators.
Though it’s far from a perfect description, the interactive space can be divided roughly into things that save time and things that waste time. The latter predominate by far. That’s why we don’t and never will have a cognitive surplus to exploit. As we amuse ourselves to death with electronic media, our brains have been liquified. When we turn off our televisions and turn on our computers, the runoff is simply going into a different ditch.