Cognitive Surplus

My blog isn’t very advanced, so I log into the spidery-website of wordpress.com to get to my editing page, and I have to usually go through a page with a sampling of different posts from different blogs affiliated with wordpress. These posts, because they were so popular, are put on this homepage. I have read about a hundred of these posts out of idle curiosity…Let’s just say, I haven’t really found anything that interested me. But for the first time, I was pretty pulled in by a post on this main site. Here it is.

The main thesis has some plausible points to it and some more questionable components. One point is that people gain enormous happiness from doing things and participating in institutions that they believe are successful and worth affiliating with. The internet, as many people have noted, has the capability of increasing such participation. The article also rightly notes that in our late liberal era, we are realizing that there are diminishing marginal returns to income (something economists have known for a while). But we are realizing this now WITH A VENGEANCE, and what I mean is that now that our society is pretty prosperous, we’re finding out that money can’t make us much happier and in fact might be limiting our ability to find new sources of happiness that are really untapped. This is all intelligent and interesting.

Next though, the author of this post makes a claim that I find harder to understand and harder to believe is true. The point, I think, is that our economic system based on consumption will be replaced by an economy of participation social and institutional arenas made possible by the communication revolution. Hmm. Really? I mean, economics as a theory takes into account the idea that free time has value, and so I don’t really see how consumption (the consumption of time to participate in these things) wouldn’t straightforwardly enter into the economics of the situation, and be easily modeled by current theories to boot. I mean, the labor supply curve is backward bending so that people will generally work more if you pay them more, but only up to a point. Ex. If you pay me $25 an hour, I’ll work. If you pay me $50 an hour, I’ll probably work more (actually I might work less because I value time so highly). But think of the limit case. If you pay me a million dollars an hour, would I work more hours than I did when I was getting 50 an hour, or would I work one hour and be done for the rest of my life. At some point, the money we earn from another hour of work won’t make us very happy (cause we’re doing fine) and the value of an hour of “my time” becomes very large. So people stop working.

In this future economy this person is talking about, it might be true that the value of free time goes way up, but all this means is that our consumption will shift from things to time so that we will make less money and so have less things but we’ll participate in more things.

But there is also a tie-in in this article to this TED video (TED is so awesome, watch this if you can). The guy in this video is, like most people, saying some insightful things, and some things that I disagree with. In this video, Clary Shirky (the aforementioned “guy”) talks about how social media/communication advances help found Ushahidi, a great conflict tracking software that is now used all over the world to help people deal with political violence and unrest (I think someone at Tufts was important for promulgating this software). He calls the growth of free time that can be used for social good “cognitive surplus” and he has all sorts of bright-eyed pronouncements for what this will do for us. And he’s right.

The flip side though, as Clay recognizes, is that we create a lot of LOLCats, which is just Clay’s idiosyncratic way of saying that communication creates a lot of crap too. He doesn’t worry about this though, because he says that even with the printing press, erotic novels preceded academic journals by a hundred years. He even says at one point that though communication produces a lot of LOLCats, its good because at least these people are doing SOMETHING with their time as opposed to nothing. But here is where I think Clay really gets in trouble because he says some BIZARRE things about the twentieth century, like: we had a lot of time to do things because we had high material prosperity, but without the internet to link us rapidly to other people, there wasn’t much to do. And because there wasn’t much to do, LOLCats by frivolous people are better than those people sitting at home. HUH?! People had nothing to do in the twentieth century? That seems like a very strange thing to say. People participated in webs of sociality that were smaller certainly (and I don’t think smaller necessarily means better by any means), but they barbequed with their neighbors in the suburbs, or got high and rocked out, or protested, or played hide and go seek with other kids on the block, like I did.

Once we see that sociality existed in a very face-to-face way, we can see what I want offer as a deep critique of internet optimism or “cognitive surplus” nirvana, which is that just as we found out money can only make us happy up to a point, we are also going to find out that manipulating data (even with the best of intentions) can only make us so happy. Right now the internet is young and everything seems so great, and it is, but as we mature and interface more tightly and closely with our devices and electronic worlds, we might find out that we need to walk next door and speak to a human being after all. Humans want to participate of course, but they also want to have friends and be loved, and maybe for me the most sacred, have a conversation with all its richness: shifting your weight, crossing your arms, reading facial expressions, changing the subject, responding to criticisms, touching the other person, making them mad, making them laugh. Conversations in real time with real people have a depth that simply isn’t possible in any other way, and if we’re shut away in our house checking our status or making LOLCats (or writing this blog..uh oh) then we’re not doing something rather than nothing, we’re doing something quasi-social rather than something robustly social.


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