Blog 3: Harnessing Cognitive Surplus for (my) Greater Good

Diverting just 1% of time Americans watch TV could create another 200 Wikepedia scale projects

We live in a society that is rushing at a hundred-miles-an-hour, ‘so little time’ we declare, ‘so much to do’, ‘If only I had more time I could … save the world!’ The power of cognitive surplus identifies huge reservoirs of time that in fact we do have, if only we would harness it for productive purposes.

My social capital and profile raising aspirations need me to find this extra time in my life, to ensure I can become more effective at work and more employable for my next job. Cognitive Surplus is the answer.

To define cognitive surplus we need to look at our use of time as citizens. It was the advent of new working conditions that came from late nineteenth century protests, ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will!’ (Shirky 2010:20) that gave citizens more time to do what they wanted in the first place.

However, Clay Shirky observed that in recent decades this explosion of freetime ‘coincided with a reduction in social capital, our stock of relationships with people we trust and rely on’ (Shirky 2010:7). So why did this happen?

One factor was that back in the 1950’s TV watching became the primary pastime in America and many other western countries. Even though radio was popular too, you could listen to the radio whilst doing something else, like driving or cooking. But TV was using the eyes and ears and ‘immobilised even moderately attentive users, freezing them on chairs and couches’ (Shirky 2010:7).

Thus the pull of television has led to a reduction in human contact as Jib Fowles wrote about in his book ‘Why Viewer’s Watch’ (Fowles 1992). It was Derrick and Gabriel (2009) who identified why this wasn’t leading to more loneliness. Their ‘social surrogacy theory’ explained how favoured TV programmes made people feel a sense of belonging with imaginary friends. Thus their need for social contact reduced and we as a people became more isolationist, self-absorbed and simply lazier!

But surely watching a little less telly isn’t going to change the world? Well, it might. Shirky and Martin Wattenberg came up with the ‘Wikipedia unit’, this is the average number of hours spent per year developing Wikipedia, they calculated it at 100 million hours per year. Wikipedia is the 5th most popular website on the planet and the worlds only truly free and comprehensive encyclopaedia. So it’s fair to say that if there ever was a good social project, that helps millions selflessly through the social capital and cognitive surplus of others, then this is it.

Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV each year. If they just transferred 1% of this effort to some sort of worthy endeavour there would be enough cognitive surplus to write 200 extra Wikipedia’s per year (Shirky 2010:10).

So, how likely is it we will get this higher level of participatory engagement?

There was an assumption with all this consuming of TV, that most people didn’t want to create anything for themselves anyway. But Shirky argues that the evidence shows a shift towards participation. Even the early use of YouTube was a move towards greater participation, as users commented on and shared their favourite videos.

As technology has evolved it has become easier and easier for anyone to have the tools of production in their pocket. Access to cheap and flexible tools has removed barriers, especially as even cheaper phones now have built in cameras and video, with the network capability of sharing it with the world.

Younger populations were the first to start shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption, like television, and now we are seeing a cumulative shift toward participation across the whole population.

‘What if we’ve always wanted to produce as well as consume’, asks Shirky, it’s just that ‘no one offered us the opportunity?’(Shirky 2010:19) It seems that we didn’t just want professionally produced content after all. ‘When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it’ (Shirky 2010:22).

But how does this new pool of content production benefit society? Putting to one side the endless cat videos, this pent up potential of mass time with new technologies can enable some really useful things to happen. For example, the website Ushahidi has been tracking violence in Kenya since 2007. It enabled for the first time a clear geographic picture of the scale and extent of violence against citizens across the country. Mass access to phones with cameras and access to cheap mobile networks has enabled a vast amount of content to be uploaded to the Ushahidi servers. But it wasn’t initially organised or managed to become what it is today. The idea evolved that the web platform should enable anyone to very simply upload their video evidence of violence.

Shirky observes that, ‘people want to do something to make the world a better place’ (Shirky 2010:17), but they need to be invited before they can help. This platform invited participation and the power of social capital, cognitive surplus and our next topic, activism, did the rest.

Having achieved this mass participation once it is easy to replicate it for all sorts of other purposes across the world. As a keen photographer, what is the chance of me photographing a once-in-a-lifetime event? In truth slim to nil, but now the ubiquity of cameras within phones has transformed the chance to an almost certainty that someone will be there to capture the moment.

Participation is important to us, to participate ‘is to act as if your presence matters … your response is part of the event’ (Shirky 2010:21). Acts of terrorism or natural disasters like the 2004 Asian Tsunami rely on participation at scale to tell the real story of these events.

There has been a crucial change in attitudes across society, we as citizens now realise that our apparently minor contributions, even amateur contributions, are an important part of the whole picture.

This evolving social media landscape has many moving parts. Cognitive surplus alone isn’t enough. We as citizens need the innate desire to participate, then access to tools to enable us to participate and then an invite to contribute to a specific worthy endeavour for the greater good.

In reviewing Cognitive surplus as a driver of global change it has made me realise that I must harness my own cognitive surplus. In the first instance I see it enabling me to strengthen my social capital, my networked profile and therefore my influence in my working environment.

These discussions around mass participation and harnessing cognitive surplus lead us to the next stage of participation, activism. This is the way we can really change the world and is the subject of blog 4. I am not planning to become a political activist, but the ideas and techniques will surely help me navigate the complex political world that I inhabit.



Shirky, Clay (2010), ‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’, Penguin, London

Derrick, Jaye and Gabriel, Shira (2009), ‘Social Surrogacy: How favoured Television Programmes Provide the Experience of Belonging’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45.2 (2009)

Fowles, Jib (1992), ‘Why Viewer’s Watch’: A Reappraisal of Television’s Effects, Newbury Park, CA, Sage Publications 1992, page 37.





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