Clay Shirkey on Cognitive Surplus

While hiding from the stack of final papers, I took a break in the cafeteria. Some of my colleagues were talking about the new Star Trek movie, and the conversation shifted to what’s on TV now.

My daily household duties include putting the kids to bed. My wife doesn’t really do mornings, and homeschooling doesn’t start until she gets up, so the kids tend to stay up late.  So I spend every prime time reading bedtime stories and supervising the brushing of teeth and the donning of pajamas.

I should point out that today’s TV has evolved in order to compete with video games and the internet… Lost and Battlestar Galactica and ER all engage brain cells in a way that assumes the viewer is intelligent, and does not need laugh tracks or “waah-waah-waah-waaaah” trombone noises in order to respond emotionally to a complex story with many dramatic twists and turns. So I’m not ranting about the poor quality of TV.

I’m sure that, if we had cable, I would find something worth watching. But that’s precisely the reason I don’t want cable. Ever. I haven’t really followed a TV show since
Babylon 5.  I’ve never seen an episode of Lost or the new Battlestar
Galactica, though I have read online summaries of the plot, and I can
understand the draw of those shows. 

When I’m free for the evening, rather than make the next two hours disappear
into the boob tube black hole, I’d much rather
make a Blender3D animation and upload it to YouTube, or convert a literary work I’ve never read before into an audio file so that I can listen to it during tomorrow’s commute, or edit a Wikipedia page, or update my blog, or just noodle around in my server logs and figure out why I suddenly got that burst of traffic from Ireland.

I’d rather DO something.

I recently came across a talk by Clay Shirkey, who uses the term
“cognitiive surplus” to describe the creative potential that we’re not
using when we sit and watch consumable TV.

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I
should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you
seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started
telling her about the Wikipedia
article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the
planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of
this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people
are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an
ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And
a little bit
at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the
while–from, “Pluto is the ninth
planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped
orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to
have a conversation about authority or social construction or
whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and
she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?”
That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No
one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the
time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been
masking for 50 years.” — Clay Shirky