What to do with the Cognitive Surplus?
I watched this talk today online by Clay Shirky about the cognitive surplus, the idea that a huge amount of human free time is being squandered today in passive TV watching (on the order of 200B hours/yr in the US alone, or 1 Wikipedia worth just watching ads each weekend), and how humanity is on the verge of a social transformation as radical as what happened when the industrial revolution shifted society to our current societal iteration.
A few highlights:
It is better to do something than nothing…. Whenever you see a LOLCAT on the internet, it says “If you have some san serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game too! …When people are offered the potential to produce and share, people will take you up on that offer… Here’s what four year olds know, a screen which ships without a mouse is broken. Media which targets you but does not include you, is not worth watching.
I recently had a very encouraging experience with the current undergraduates at Olin College. When I was a senior, I proposed a set of amendments to the Honor Code (the Olin judicial code) and the assorted procedures around it, and received an incredibly negative response from my graduating year (we had built the college, and I think become resistant to change as a result of having been exposed to so much uncertainty) which resulted in the amendments not passing. Just a month ago marked the end of that push for change, as the last of the amendments I proposed were passed by the current student body. I realized that people hunger for change, and sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting for the right social conditions to emerge and then catalyze that moment.
I am so excited that over the next decade the first generation raised with the Internet as their second (or first) tongue will start to emerge out into the world. One of the things I think about a lot is the role of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s. People forget often that while most of the protesters were 18 or 19 years old, Savio was in his mid-twenties and a couple of years out of undergrad. He helped provide a point for the energy of those college freshman to coalesce around and just enough knowledge to focus them. At the same time, if those 18 and 19 year-olds hadn’t been ready to be catalyzed, the Free Speech Movement wouldn’t have gone anywhere.
I surfed over to Clay Shirky’s blog to learn more, and I ran across a post he had written called The (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth where he discusses that the advantage young entrepreneurs have over older entrepreneurs is that they don’t know as much, and as a result aren’t biased by that accumulated experience. In a world that is changing quickly, that’s a huge advantage. What if the key as you get older is to help those younger than you to accomplish things, as they are not biased in ways that you are, but you know more about how larger infrastructural processes work (ie. how to get shit done).
The older I get, the more I appreciate the brilliance of what Marissa Mayer has done with the APM program at Google. She takes a bunch of young people without that bias of experience (but who do have an intimate understanding living with the Internet), and lets them run (with course corrections/occasional guidance). As a result, she (like Mario Savio) gets a huge force multiplier to change the Internet with and a constant new stream of new ideas to help channel into tangible outcomes.
Aside: I really want to meet Clay Shirky.