The surplus: crowd control or crowdsourcing?
Sometimes YouTube reminds me of Judge Dredd. Around the age of 13 or 14, I fell in love with the The Judge Dredd role playing game. At that age I floated towards the darker futuristic RPGs like Paranoia and Shadowmancer rather than the fantasy fluff of Dungeons and Dragons. The game is set in MegaCity One and is well summarized in The Indepedent newspaper:
In the 22nd century, the story goes, most of the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable radioactive desert (in 1977, post-apocalypic futures were the only kind imagined). The population of the world is crammed into a few Mega-Cities, where tens of thousands of people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks. Unemployment is total, and the unhinged citizens pass the time in ever crazier ways. They have plastic surgery to make themselves ugly; they eat until they weigh half a tonne each; they take up spot-welding as a hobby; they fly around on jet-powered surfboards. Mostly, they shoot each other, or are shot by the judges, the unaccountable, unemotional government / police force.
This was what the future of mass unemployment looked like with computers and robots doing the serious work and humans left with nothing but frivolity to fill their time. Many of the videos on YouTube hint at this dystopian outcome of surplus time.
But Clay Shirky offers a different vision of what he calls the cognitive surplus in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody. This is one of the few books that I bought in paper and almost every line in every page is underlined as Clay has such a wonderful way with words. Watch this extraordinary video of him speaking (or read the transcript):
Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.
Society never really knows what do do with any surplus at first. (That’s what makes it a surplus.) In this case, we had to find something to do with the sudden spike in surplus hours. The sitcom was our gin, a ready-made response to the crisis of free time. TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.
Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.
The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn’t exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others.
So what kinds of things are possible with this cognitive surplus? Recently on YouTube I am finding an increasing number of beautiful videos by amateurs who wanted to teach. Diabetic children make videos showing how to inject insulin, exercise instructors demonstrate four-minute workouts, and enthusiasts explain wikis.
Which is why I was so interested to read the book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. It is a cornucopia of companies collaborating with crowds and he mentions a few in this Tech Nation interview.
InnoCentive, for example, allows companies to post bounties for problems they have not been able to solve internally. People from around the world compete to provide solutions, make money, and basically enjoy using their congitive surprlus. Take Mrs. Sgargetta, an Italian scientist who left academia to look after her family. After she finishes making dinner for the children and putting them to sleep she runs chemical experiments in her kitchen.
In the four years following Sgargetta’s first encounter with InnoCentive, she solved two InnoCentive challenges. In one she invented a type of dye that turned dishwater blue after the correct amount of detergent had been added. Although InnoCentive “seeker” companies are supposed to remain anonymous, Sgargetta later discovered that P&G had filed a patent referencing her and her discovery. She netted $30,000 for her kitchen-brewed coup.
What did you do with your surplus after dinner last night?