What is the Cognitive Surplus?

Clay Shirky author of the business book “Cognitive Surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age” and of the Ted Talk “How Cognitive Surplus will change the world” coined the term “Cognitive Surplus” to “describe the free time that people have…to engage in collaborative activities” particularly online. People worldwide are allocating their free time to connecting with each other instead of passively watching TV alone. Fueled by enthusiasm and passion, they are using their creative energy outside of work to fulfill social goals, not economic ones.

Clay Shirky - Every year there are a trillion hours of participatory value up for grabs

Clay Shirky a Technology Optimist

Shirky, a social media theorist and technology optimist, sees Cognitive Surplus as part of a positive evolution. “Now, we have technology that allows us to create, not just consume,” he says, urging former couch potatoes to take advantage of new opportunities to make a difference. “The wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.” This new resource means that “every year there are a trillion hours of participatory value up for grabs.”

Cognitive Surplus Erring on the Side of New Technology

The trend toward online collaboration is emerging as the Internet shifts from “old technology“ to “new technology.” Old technology locked users within specific systems, while new technology embraces openness and chaos. As it matures, it lets its users develop their own rules and protocols. New technology is very effective at coordinating people with different skill sets and competencies in many different places. The Internet now lets individuals pool their Cognitive Surplus to accomplish major goals at minimal cost in a variety of areas, including software development, content creation, art, design, entertainment, crisis management, and much more.


Shirky: the gap between doing nothing and doing something often provides the freedom to experiment with the creation of junk

Cognitive Surplus’ First Step: Participation

Even though Cognitive Surplus has social ramifications, it doesn’t always focus on making the world a better place. Even the LOL Cats Shirky says represents a joint effort. “Even the stupidest collaboration still shows that they’ve tried something.” It’s all part of a selection and learning process, wherein “the gap between doing nothing and doing something often provides the freedom to experiment with the creation of junk.” Individual motives don’t always have to be noble. LOL Cats are just a stepping stone to better things. He likens LOL Cats to the events that followed the invention of the printing press, when erotic novels got published before scientific journals. So, don’t worry if your kids are addicted to LOL cats; in the grand scheme of things, it is for the greater good.

Cognitive Surplus: How Sharing and Collaborating Accelerate Innovation

If you are looking for a solution to a problem, chances are that someone has already found it and might already be sharing it with the rest of the world. You might even be able to access an online tutorial detailing the steps to follow to implement that solution. And, if no one has looked for a solution yet, a community of experts awaits on line to research your problem for you. People online constantly ask, “How do I do this?” or “Is this possible?” Those who freely share their solutions are fueling a virtuous circle of improvements and building in an accumulation of knowledge.

Ushahidi Epitomizes What Cognitive Surplus Can Do for Society

Ushahidi Epitomizes What <b>Cognitive Surplus</b> Can Do for Society”/></a>In 2008 violence erupted over Kenya’s election results in Kenya. After a government-imposed media blackout, <a href=Ory Okolloh started blogging to report the locations of violent incidents. When she asked people to send her updates, she was quickly overwhelmed with more information than she could process. She reached out to the tech community and in only 72 hours two programmers, Erik Hersman and David Kobia, created a mash-up platform that solved her problem. It helped her keep 45,000 Kenyans current on vital information and provided valuable assistance to aid workers and NGOs on the ground. It gave Okolloh the ability to map incidents of violence and successful peace efforts reported by citizen journalists via the web and mobile outlets. As a result of this ad hoc collaboration, Okolloh, Erik Hersman, David Kobia and Juliana Rotich founded and launched Ushahidi, an open source platform born from the original web mash-up. Volunteers manage the platform from locations throughout Africa, Europe and the US. Ushahidi has been used to track unrest and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Gaza. More recently, users deployed it to track the swine flu outbreak. Ushahidi appointed Clay Shirky to its board of directors in August 2012.

Cognitive Surplus Finds a Natural Avenue in Technology, Entertainment, Art, Science, and Design.

Ushahidi Epitomizes What <b>Cognitive Surplus</b> Can Do for Society”/></a>The tools designed with open source technology are allowing collaboration to spread to other disciplines. The world of music offers several high profile examples. <a href=Play for Change started as a small group of documentary filmmakers recording musicians around the world and became a global movement for peace. The filmmakers recorded several standards, including “Stand By Me,” which gave birth to the movement. That track features 35 musicians from all over the world with diverse backgrounds and different levels of renown. They had never met in person. Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre used technology to lead a group of musicians scattered in different geographical locations. The result, “Virtual Choice Live,” is an ethereal and haunting song that illustrates what can happen in a world where people collaborate freely.

In science, hubzero.org is an open source software platform that supports scientific research. In the arts there are many sites like webcanvas.com and curiator.com that leverage Cognitive Surplus generated by their communities. In the world of design, sites like marqueed.com empower enthusiasts to collaborate. As they do, they transfer knowledge by working together, coaching and mentoring.

Does the Cognitive Surplus Benefit or Threaten Corporations?

Nothing illustrates better the ambivalence between Cognitive Surplus and corporations than what has happened in the world of web servers. While Microsoft enjoys a 90% a market share of operating systems installed on desktops and laptops, its usage share of web servers’ operating systems only amounts to 20% of all websites and only 13% of the top one million busiest sites. On the other hand, with 50% share of all sites, Apache is the most popular web server on the planet. To add insult to injury, the fastest rising operating system used in ecommerce is now Nginx, another open source software. Two top Fortune 500 companies, namely Google and Microsoft, are struggling to penetrate that market. So it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Cognitive Surplus is so powerful that it threatens corporations. This may be true in sectors like media and the news industry, but a case can be made that there would not be any Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter without open source software and no open source software without Cognitive Surplus. The bottom line is that Cognitive Surplus has made it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses and innovate and that is a benefit that outweighs all the other detriments.

From Cognitive Surplus to Mass Collaboration and Collaboration at Work

The most spectacular aspect of Cognitive Surplus is its ability to materialize itself mysteriously in the form of massive collaboration online. With little coordination, thousands and sometimes millions of people, all in different locations, work together toward the same purpose. Collaboration in the workplace has been traditionally thought to work the opposite way. Nobody is more critical of that than software entrepreneur James Fried ,co-founder of 37 Signals. He has a controversial thought about workplace collaboration. He says “there is certainly such a thing as over-collaboration.” In his original TED Talk, “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work,” Fried lays it out. “We have companies and non-profits that have employees or volunteers of some sort. So what they typically do is decide that they need to come together in one place to do their work. They build offices. They expect their employees or volunteers to come at that location every day to do great work.” He furthers his point by asking the following question, “Where do you really go when you need get something done? You’ll find that people don’t say what business think they would say. You’d hear some things like the basement, the coffee shop, the library […]. You almost never hear someone say the office.”

James Fried - there is certainly such a thing as over-collaboration

With the “M & Ms” (the Managers and Meetings) interrupting the day, people don’t have time to work because they are busy attending meetings or conference calls. Meetings have become the first resort instead of being dedicated to solving problems. “In most businesses there are an over abundances of meetings; they happen far too often and it has become the only way to deal with any decision.” This is a very well shared sentiment among Silicon Valley start-ups where the freedom to work remotely from anywhere has become synonymous to more productivity.

Does Freely Working from Home Mean More Productivity?

Marissa Mayer - The best ideas that eventually made their way on the Google site were the result of short face-to-face meetings during office hoursSome high-tech industry executives have recently been on the record advocating for the work-from-home ban. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayers recently cancelled office flex time and the ability to telecommute. She is on the record in a Forbes article saying that “the best ideas that eventually made their way on the Google site were the result of short face-to-face meetings during office hours.” In a CNN/Fortune article called, “Working from Home Alone is the Real Culprit,” Zappos founder Tony Hsieh weighs in: “It may seem strange that although Zappos uses technology to scale, we still rely so much on face-to-face interactions. It’s because our biology has evolved far, far slower than our technology. We are a social species, designed for in-person interactions in multiple locations, not just by email and phone calls or remotely from home, and also not just in conference rooms. We are designed to be in motion, and we are designed to be creative, to share ideas, and to innovate in multiple locations throughout the day. Getting to know people in different environments and contexts leads to higher levels of trust, better communication, and can ultimately contribute to a stronger and more innovative culture.

What this means is that while I applaud Yahoo’s Mayer for taking a step in the right direction, I think there are even more steps to take. I think the next evolution in building a corporate campus is no longer going to be about the insular master-planned environment that you might find at big Silicon Valley tech companies.

I think the next evolution will be about being part of, and contributing to, the surrounding community. I think that, in the long run, being invested in the local community will ultimately help companies attract and retain more employees as corporations help make their surrounding neighborhoods more vibrant and walkable.”

From “Cognitive Surplus” to motivation to collaborative efforts, one thing is certain: the 21st century requires an entirely different mental approach that relies on reintroducing a sense of community, connecting people with each other and combating isolation. That is one of the lessons that can be learned from Clay Shirky’s concept of the Cognitive Surplus.

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