Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Your Cognitive Surplus

This guy has an interesting idea about all that free time you've been racking up in front of the boob tube.

"So how big is that [cognitive] 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, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation."

My only problem with this is that Wikipedia (or any other internet project, like writing stupid blogs) might simply be a way of making public the amount of trivial fiddling we do all the time. In other words, before Wikipedia, the same dorks who update Wikipedia spent their 100 million hours of thought doing dorky things besides watching TV. It's just that now, their efforts are public (and, yes, useful). So I'm not sure I see this big surplus of time/effort out there to exploit. To a first approximation, people are lazy and stupid and it seems to me that this isn't changing just because the internet came along.

To put it another way, people may have put in 100 million hour on Wikipedia, but my guess is that the total time spent searching for boobs on-line is something like 5 billion hours.

So what are you going to do with your TV time?

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