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May 6, 2008

Looking for the Mouse in Media: Clay Shirky on Deploying the Cognitive Surplus for Public Good

"The imagery is geological: the release of trapped deposits. He thinks we can reverse the time sink for people once marooned on the receiving end of a one-way system that didnít care what you thought or brought to it, since it couldnít afford the costs of interacting with you."

Ever wondered: where’s the time going to come from for all these nifty open source ventures that people are planning? Well, Clay Shirky says we got plenty. He just gave an extremely useful and imaginative speech to Web heads about where we are in media time.

Shirky, who teaches at NYU but in a different program, has a new book out: Here Comes Everybody (“The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.”) This speech stands alone. You can read it here, but you should really watch him here— after absorbing this post. The clip is less than 15 minutes. It lets you think along with Shirky as he explains “the cognitive surplus” we developed during the age of TV.

This is a huge deposit of waking hours lived in front of the tube, a vast expanse of free time occupied for 40 years by commercial television. We’re at least starting to find the architecture of participation (Tim O’Reilly’s phrase) that would turn some of those couch-born hours into sentient activity, followed naturally by inter-activity, as in massively multiplayer games, which can lead (for some) to public works and social goods, as with “the online encyclopedia anyone can edit.”

The imagery is geological: the release of trapped deposits. He thinks we can reverse the time sink for people once marooned on the receiving end of a one-way system that didnít care what you thought or brought to it, since it couldnít afford the costs of interacting with you. I was one of those people—1964 to 1974 were my wasted years—and Clay says he was one. We both watched Gilligan’s Island and tried to decide who was cuter: Ginger or Mary Ann.

So I took his talk very personally. I would love to have those hours back for something a little more constructive. But where does that love go?

One place it’s gone is into making certain that my daughter, Sylvie, doesn’t get marooned. I’m glad she has her own blog with her friend Julia Jarvis. (They’re both fifth graders and their site is about American Girl dolls.) She has a foothold on the producer side of the transaction, and understands the Web as an author’s medium.

A cognitive surplus means the total amount of unoccupied free time available (think of it as “screen hours”) after the basic needs of society have been met. Television swallowed up most of the surplus American society produced during the period of relative affluence after World War Two.

Clay figures it took 100 million hours of people around the world writing, checking, editing, gathering, and talking it over (and fighting!) to make all versions of Wikipedia. “And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year.” Therefore if 99 percent of the TV watching in the US remained as is, and we broke off just one percent for the information commons and other cool stuff we could have 100 Wikipedia-class projects per year.

What we need are lots and lots of different projects that try to deploy this surplus— and “fail informatively.” So the kid in the basement, the developers at the Web 2.0 conference, the Knight Challenge winners and others with new media ambitions should go forward with their best ideas. Because….

Someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn’t have imagined existing even five years ago.

Let’s summarize:

Q. Where do people get the hours to participate?

A. From the de-commercialization of their time!

Q. Yeah, but people like to consume their media. Sometimes they just want to sit there… Right?

A. Right! They also want to produce (sometimes) and share what they made (some of those times). They want to be audience, producer, distributor… at different times. Deal with it or die!

They also expect to operate their media. At least more and more of them do. Clay illustrates this beautifully with a story about a four year-old girl who wanders around behind the DVD player as its playing her show. When her parents ask her what she’s doing, she pokes her head out and says, “I’m looking for the mouse.”

I heard that and thought: Yes. That’s what I’ve been doing for maybe 20 years or so. Looking for the mouse in American journalism. And many other people have been seeking the same thing in their separate but interrelated domains.

To the really young people—Sylvie’s generation—any device that ships without a mouse is “broken.” It happened a long time ago, of course, but the modern professionalized press, producing the journalism that’s called mainstream now, shipped without a mouse back then because it was built for overlay on a broadcast—one-to-many—system.

“We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience.” Dig: Those are the trapped deposits. Watch Shirky explain them… and then get to work! My favorite moment, because it was the most personal: Clay’s wicked response to the television reporter who asked… “where do people find the time?”

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine writes about what the girls—my daughter and his daughter—are doing:

Lately, Iíve been thinking a great deal about how the connections and collaboration the internet enables change ó improve, I say ó the nature of friendship in profound ways that will, in turn, change society in unseen ways. Yesterday, I wrote about ambient intimacy, that is, our ability to stay in touch with the little details of friendsí lives. Iíve argued that the permanence of connections enabled by Facebook links and Google search alters our relationships; this is on my mind because Iím about to write that chapter in my book and because Iím going to see an old friend thanks to Google later this week.

Now add one more dimension: creation as an act of friendship, collaboration as a means of staying in touch, media as a social act. That is what is happening in the American Girl blog: Julia and Sylvie can share by creating. Play is social. Media is play. Social media is fun…

Sylvie and Julia are just doing what comes naturally ó theyíre having fun together. And so Iím sure both of them with will roll their eyes at their crazy dads for blathering on about it here and there and not understanding the point, for making it sound boring, for taking the fun out of it.

I can say with some confidence that Sylvie thinks being mentioned in PressThink is fun. But she can probably think of tons of things that are more fun.

Some of what Jeff says in his post is also covered in this short video clip of me explaining The Ethic of the Link and the Rise of the Web.

Luigi Montanez at Tech President, Political Implications of the Cognitive Surplus.

Meanwhile, Adrian Monck has a different view:

Is online activity any more worthwhile than watching half an hour of the Phil Silvers Show? Or any more worthwhile than sitting in an audience whilst Shirky is speaking?

Is Shirky saying there is a problem with spectating and entertainment?

Well say it then! And give us some evidence - not just some flashy but superficial historical analogies, some geek-speak and a little Nike philosophy of the Just Do It school.

(Did I say I didnít like this essay, by the way?)

On whether online activity is any more worthwhile than watching half an hour of the Phil Silvers Show, I would say yes, definitely. Shirky says activity is better than inactivity. And: “However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.”

Bill Kinnon took my 2006 post, The People Formerly Known as the Audience, and wrote The People Formerly Known as the Congregation, which he says is his blog’s most popular entry ever. Commenting on this post, Kinnon observes “what Shirky says is critically important for the church.”

This was cross posted at Idea Lab.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 6, 2008 10:15 PM