Looking for the Mouse in Media: Clay Shirky on Cognitive Surplus

    by Jay Rosen
    May 6, 2008

    Ever wondered: where’s the time going to come from for all these nifty open source ventures people are planning? Clay Shirky says we got plenty. He just gave an extremely useful and imaginative speech to Web heads about where we are in media time.

    Shirky, who teaches in a different program at NYU, has a new book out: Here Comes Everybody (“The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.”) But this speech stands alone. You can read it here, but you should really watch him here— after reading this post. The clip is less than 15 minutes. It lets you think along with Shirky as he explains “the cognitive surplus” we developed during the age of TV.

    This a huge deposit of waking hours lived in front of the tube, a vast expanse of free time occupied for 40 years by commercial television. We’re at least starting to find the architecture of participation (Tim O’Reilly’s phrase) that would turn some of those couch-born hours into sentient activity, followed naturally by inter-activity, as in massive multiplayer games, which can lead to public works and social goods, as with “the online encyclopedia anyone can edit.”


    Clay’s imagery is geological: the release of trapped deposits. He thinks we can reverse the brain sink that commercial television represents for some of the people once marooned on the receiving end of a one-way system that didn’t care what you thought or brought to it, since it couldn’t afford the costs of usefully interacting with you. I was one of those people—1964 to 1974 were my wasted years of heavy watching-and Clay was one them. We both watched Gilligan’s Island. So I took his talk very personally. I would love to have those hours back for something a little more constructive. But where does that love go?

    A “cognitive surplus” means the total amount of unoccupied free time available (think of it as “screen hours”) after the basic needs of society have been met. Television swallowed up most of the surplus American society produced during the period of relative affluence after World War Two.

    Clay figures it took 100 million hours of people around the world writing, checking, editing, gathering, and talking it over (fighting!) to make all versions of Wikipedia. “And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year.” Therefor if 99 percent of the TV watching in the US remained as is, and we broke off just one percent for the information commons and other cool stuff we could have 100 Wikipedia-class projects per year.


    All you have to do is convince one kid in 100 that participation in media is more fun. That’s good news for Idea Lab writers and readers.

    What we need are lots and lots of different projects that try to deploy this existing surplus— and “fail informatively.” So the kid in the basement, the developers at the Web 2.0 conference, the Knight Challenge winners and others with new media ambitions should go forward with their best ideas.

    Someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn’t have imagined existing even five years ago.

    Q. Where do people get the hours to participate?

    A. From the de-commercialization of their time!

    Q. Yeah, but people like to consume their media. Sometimes they just want to sit there… Right?

    A. Of course they do! They also want to produce (sometimes) and share what they made (some of those times). They want to be audience, producer, distributor… at different times. Deal with it or die!

    They also expect to operate their media. At least more and more of them do. Clay illustrates this beautifully with a story about a four year-old girl who wanders around behind the DVD player as its playing her show. When her parents ask her what she’s doing, she pokes her head out and says, “I’m looking for the mouse.”

    I heard that and thought: Yes. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years or so. Looking for the mouse in American journalism. Many other people have been seeking the same thing in their separate but interrelated domains.

    To the really young people any device that ships without a mouse is “broken.” It happened a long time ago, of course, but the modern professionalized press, the mainstream journalism we have now shipped without a mouse because it was built for overlay on a broadcast—one to many—system.

    “We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience.” Dig: Those are the trapped deposits. Watch Shirky explain them… and then get to work!

    My favorite moment, because it was the most personal: Clay’s response to the television reporter who asked… “where do people find the time?”

    Tagged: clayshirky here comes everybody interactivity new media television web 2.0

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