Cognitive surplus is a term coined by Clay Shirky to describe the giant block of free time, once spent passively consuming one-way media or entertainment, that is starting to be used for more productive projects and collaborations. (It’s also the name of Shirky’s most recent book.) It’s a pretty simple idea, and Shirky describes it via example in an interview at Wired:
Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.
For more on the idea, watch Shirky’s TED talk here. But will we realize the potential of Shirky’s vision? Joshua Benton wrote a post a couple weeks back at Nieman Lab titled I have found the cognitive surplus, and it hates pigs. If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you probably haven’t gotten sucked in by the latest time waster: the mobile game Angry Birds. Says Benton:
1.2 billion hours a year spent playing Angry Birds. Or, if Shirky’s estimate is in the right ballpark, about one Wikipedia’s worth of time every month.
This post is a plea to embrace the cognitive surplus, to not get sucked in by Angry Birds. So here’s someone who embraced the cognitive surplus, and put his free time to good use: Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. Go read this (2007) interview with Gillis, about the tension between his day job and his burgeoning music career:
Gillis: I have jumped on a plane to do Friday and Saturday shows almost every weekend for the past 4 months now. It’s a little difficult to never talk about this in the work environment and to completely ignore the fact that I’m signing autographs and playing sold out shows when I’m not in my cubicle.
Months later he quit his job to be Girl Talk full time. So would you rather be Girl Talk or on get to the next level of Angry Birds? It’s the start of the three day weekend. Here’s to embracing your cognitive surplus.
Note: here’s a more recent article about Girl Talk, what he does, and how he performs
Update: If you think this comparison is unfair because when you’re playing Angry Birds on your phone on the bus, say, there’s not much else you could be doing, I have one app for you: Instapaper.