Cognative Surplus, or How LOLcats will Save the World


lolcat
Back in the late 90s, I worked in a software company that hired  full development teams to other technology companies. We provided expertise that our clients might not have in-house, which meant we usually worked with new technology on cutting-edge projects. When the internet opened up to e-commerce, the company signed up new clients at record speed. One of the marketing managers explained to my coworker Angela and me that the internet was finally useful now that people could use the web to make a profit. After that meeting, Angela created a secret slogan that we would sometimes whisper to each other while working on projects that had no purpose other than making crazy amounts of money: “Use the internet for good, not for evil.”

This weekend, I listened to author, professor, and social media guru Clay Shirky on the TED Radio Hour. The program focused on collaboration and Shirky talked about a concept he’s coined “cognative surplus.” According to his estimates, the world has over a trillion of hours of free time to commit to shared projects. Some of that time we—the people of the world—use to do things like watch TV or create memes that we share on the internet. But even if you use your time to create LOLcats instead of inventing cool apps to do crisis mapping (one of Shirky’s examples is the creation of Ushahidi, the software that election information after the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential race), you should still feel like you’re contributing to the good of the world:

The stupidest creative act is still a creative act….The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.

The talk is well worth the 13 minutes it takes to watch. I especially find Shirky comparing our relationship with media and technology during the 1900s to the 2000s inspiring. The last century taught us how to consume. We’re still excellent consumers, but with new media tools like the internet and mobile phones we also show that we like to create. And share. And collaborate.

According to Shirky—and I really want to believe him on this—human motivation, new tools of collaboration, and our cognative surplus allow us to do “truly incredible experiments in scientific, literary, artistic, political efforts.”

In this new century, we’re finally using the internet mostly “for good, not for evil.” Angela and I are very happy.

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