clay shirky talks politics and cognitive surplus at demos

By on Jul 14, 2008 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

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Clay Shirky @ Demos
Originally uploaded by robinhamman

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke today at a free event organised by Demos.

He discussed, amongst other things, my.barackobama which, soon after it launched, faced a backlash from within because some users had high expectations of participation that weren’t met by the system. Barack had to respond, and did so by saying he wasn’t going to change anything, but the fact that he felt it was important to engage is, according to Shirky, what’s really telling about how the campaign is being run. What did they learn? Well, what the campaign has done since suggests that they’ve decided that “you don’t let people near policy” but use social media tools for fundraising and getting out the vote, but not to shape policy.

Moving away from politics, Shirky also spoke about the decline – for the first time since WW2 – in hours people, particularly those under the age of 35, spend in front of a television each week. “People don’t just like to consume, they like to produce and share… we’ve finally got a hold of a medium that [allows us to do that].”

A television producer asked Shirky how people find the time to create wikipedia articles – resulting in one of my favourite posts of all time:

“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.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.”

Bill Thompson is doing a good job of twittering the event…