Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Participatory Institutions

Clay Shirky posted a thoughtful and thought provoking essay titled "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" on his Here Comes Everybody blog.

The growing population, with increasing education and information literacy, and increasing per hour productivity produced by the spread of improved technology, has what Shirky terms a "social surplus" or "cognitive surplus" of time available for things other than working and sleep. A lot of this time currently goes into watching television:
Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year.....

The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption.
Shirky also points out that while people like to consume entertainment and information, they also like to produce and share information. Wikipedia is an example of a new "institution" which allows people to produce and share information, and Shirky calculates that Wikipedia represents a "cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought". That is, Wikipedia represents one part in 10,000 of the cognitive surplus currently used watching television that is available to Internet-connected people each year.

The point of Shirky's posting is to suggest that it will take time, but we will surely develop other institutions that will absorb much more of the growing cognitive surplus in generating and sharing information on the Internet.

Some of that time will no doubt be spent on social networking sites like Facebook, but some of will be used on activities that produce considerably greater social benefits.

On the other hand, as others have pointed out, this may be bad news for the television producers.

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