Cognitive Surplus


#[DRAFT] Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus What if there was an invisible phenomenon[?] that guides many of your daily decisions, and that you almost certainly contribute to on a very regular basis?

What do Wikipedia, online reviews, online Q&A forums like Quora, crowd-sourced dictionaries, and many more, have in common?

They all capitalize, definitely socially and perhaps financially, on a phenomenon described by Clay Shirky in his 2010 TED talk [video 13mins]“How cognitive surplus will change the world”.

As a technologist, I think a lot about all aspects of tech, including social, economic, financial, technical, etc. Cognitive Surplus (CS) jumps out as a phenomenon that is one of the primary benefits of the digital revolution, yet highly underappreciated and perhaps not even explicitly articulated since Shirky’s talk.

So what exactly is Cognitive Surplus? As Shirky describes it, it is enabled by two factors: human generosity and digital technology.

Human generosity is a trait that has been within (some of) us for the existence of our species. It might especially thrive when people of good will feel they can trust each other and be reciprocal.(entirely non-apropos of this context, to test whether inline LaTeX works, here is the Sigmoid function: 11+expx\frac{1}{1 + \exp{-x}}.)

Digital technology was truly kicked off with the invention of the integrated circuit, and the subsequent computer revolution that is still ongoing and brought us all the technology you are using to read this. Especially the Internet/Web, the smartphone, and social media have caused a quantum leap. (It would be interesting to get Shirkey’s updated assessment of the CS given developments since his talk.)

With the broad technological revolutions since the Industrial Revolution, human beings now have both the free time, and the digital technology to contribute their cognitive efforts toward an almost Global Cognitive Surplus.

How much free time do people have exactly? If we limit ourselves to the US, then this Rand Study says 5 hours per day. So 5 hours/day * 365 days * 300 million Americans = 547,500,000,000 free hours per year, roughly half a trillion.

As a software engineer, I’m especially interested in how this applies to software. We can distinguish between several “vectors of analysis”:

  • “software is eating the world” - as per Marc Andreessen. Software is quickly becoming more important in many aspects of human life.
  • the economics of software: extremely low marginal cost of production, and extremely low cost of distribution. Build once, sell everywhere, to anyone, for as long as possible.
  • open source: this is where Cognitive Surplus really shines in the context of software. Developers and content creators contribute their cognitive energy to an effort that benefits a wider community, and can then be used and built upon by anyone else.
    • a great example is the plethora of open source software libraries available for any programming language. Each library only had to be written once, with contributions from any number of volunteers. Then it can be immediately used by thousands or even millions of other developers and users to accomplish their own objectives.

Lik e any product of human creativity, the fruits of Cognitive Surplus are likely to follow a Power Law: roughly, 80% of the body of output comes from 20% of people involved, and 64% comes from the top 4%, and so forth.

Types of Cognitive Surplus:

  • Communal surplus: by the community, for the community.
    • Venn diagram: exactly overlapping circles.
  • Civic value: created by participants, benefiting society as a whole.
    • Venn diagram: a smaller circle contained within a larger circle.