What we do with our “Cognitive Surplus”

By Mary Lou Fulton

I first discovered the Internet in 1994, before there was such a thing as a search engine and just months after the first web browser, Mosaic, had been invented.   I was initiated into the digital world through e-mail lists, which offered an immediate and intuitive understanding of what makes the Internet so powerful.   People the world over were communicating and sharing information in an unprecedented ways.

It was in trying to grasp the power and possibilities of the Internet that I first stumbled across the writings of Clay Shirky, who has the rare combination of geek cred and the ability to describe big ideas in ways that everyone can understand.   Shirky said that the Internet was the first invention to enable real-time and simultaneous collaboration since someone came up with the idea of adding a third leg to a table.

Since then I have been a fan of Shirky, who just released a new book called “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” in which he argues that social isolation, primarily driven by TV watching, has resulted in our minds becoming dormant as we endlessly pondered whether Gilligan would ever get off that island.  But now, Shirky argues, the Internet has offered new and more compelling options for what to do with our free time.

“Television was a solitary activity that crowded out other forms of social connection. But the very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing. When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one. This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about. So instead of that free time seeping away in front of the television set, the cognitive surplus is going to be poured into everything from goofy enterprises like lolcats, where people stick captions on cat photos, to serious political activities like Ushahidi.com, where people report human rights abuses,” Shirky said in a Q&A with Wired magazine.

That Q&A was a great conversation between Shirky and Daniel Pink, another of my favorite thinkers.  Pink added, “We have a biological drive. We eat when we’re hungry, drink when we’re thirsty, have sex to satisfy our carnal urges. We also have a second drive—we respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. But what we’ve forgotten—and what the science shows—is that we also have a third drive. We do things because they’re interesting, because they’re engaging, because they’re the right things to do, because they contribute to the world. The problem is that, especially in our organizations, we stop at that second drive. We think the only reason people do productive things is to snag a carrot or avoid a stick.”

A quick look at the Alexa.com rankings of most popular U.S. web sites shows what Shirky and Pink are talking about.  Six of the top 10 sites are drive by individuals creating and sharing content.  This has been true for years (I track these stats and often include them in presentations), though MySpace has given way to Facebook and Twitter will soon overtake eBay.

The internet continues to grow because its capabilities appeal to our hard wiring as social creatures who intuitively seek opportunities to connect, collaborate and be part of a larger community.  It’s good to know that impulse is still within us and can give Gilligan a run for his money.