Cognitive Surplus

In his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators Clay Shirky proposes that since the 1940s, people are learning how to use free time more constructively for creative acts rather than consumptive ones, particularly with the advent of online tools that allow new forms of collaboration.

While Shirky acknowledges that the activities that we use our cognitive surplus for may be frivolous, the trend as a whole is leading to valuable and influential new forms of human expression.

The forms of human collaboration that Shirky argues the Internet provides can be classified in four categories of varying degrees of value: personal, communal, public, and civic. Shirky argues that while all of these are legitimate uses of “cognitive surplus,” the civic value – the power to actually change society – that social media provides is what should be celebrated about the Internet.

Seven years later, little can be found which would support Shriky’s optimism. Cognitive surplus seems to have contributed mostly to fine-tune micro interest channels on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Make up a hobby in your mind then search YouTube and you can be sure somebody already garnered 50,000 views for the most obscure obsession. How about “extreme ironing”? Ironing is what people used to do before there were dry cleaners, and now you can watch hobbiest perform that feat on YouTube – underwater or while sky-diving! The madness even has a Wikipedia page referring to it as ‘extreme sport’.

In the menatime, intellectual feats of cognitive surplus – such as Wikipedia – are losing momentum (see Wikipedia article prognosis below).

It seems to be obvious that Internet users are motivated by ‘views’ and ‘likes’ – hence outward validation. This driver is increasingly exploided by platform creating profits from derivative sales (i.e. advertising). Social networks measure dopamin secretion –  an organic chemical released in the brain and associated with pleasurable feelings – in their users and corelate ‘click-through-rates’ and ‘time on site’ to presentation of specific ‘information’. The key performance indicators of these companies are strictly tied to profit motives while creating nothing of value.

Cognitive surplus is fragmented down to the lowest common denominator and harvested to the best of the ability to the highest bidder.