Cognitive Surplus

There’s an expression I hear a bit too often, in reference to other people’s chosen pastimes. It’s usually used in a negative sense, and more often than not, the pastimes being referred to are things like blogging, or Twittering.

“People have too much time on their hands” … or …  “Where do people find the time?”

Clay Shirky had a similar conversation recently, regarding the thousands of people who spend their free time culling, cultivating, editing, and massaging the vast fount of human knowledge that is Wikipedia.

“Where do people find the time?” A fair question, until you look at it in comparison to the amount of time people spend watching television. As it turns out, Wikipedia represents, collectively, about 100 million hours of thought. Meanwhile, watching television consumes around two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year.

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.

Shirky is talking about this in terms of “cognitive surplus” — all the brain power that’s sitting idle in a consumptive state, rather than a productive state. That’s not quite fair – we all need to consume information if we’re going to produce information. And oh yeah – we all owe ourselves a bit of “veg time” every day. But before you ask the question “where do people find the time” in regards to any person’s pastime that doesn’t interest you personally, remember that the average American watches 8+ hours of TV per day.

That in itself is a stunning statistic, and I’m not sure how to digest it – if you subtract time for work, school, eating, etc. I can’t see how a person could even watch two hours per day (I’m guessing that a lot of people simply leave the TV on all the time), but still. That’s a whole lot of cognitive surplus.

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