I like Clay Shirky. He doesn’t say a great deal, he doesn’t write a great deal, but when he does say something or write something, what he says or writes is brilliant. Clay is a web optimist, a class of person who believes that everything the web stands for can create value, and often new value. That the democratisation engendered by the web is a good thing; that communities can do good things that individuals can’t achieve in isolation; that the very concept of expertise is being redefined by the web.
Such views often tend to attract a lot of criticism, often from people threatened by the worldview he describes and ascribes to.
And so it was with his most recent book, Cognitive Surplus. Some people loved it. Some hated it. I for one really liked it, because Clay made me think about something normal and commonplace in a different way, by exposing a small number of ideas in an articulate and enjoyable way. [Disclosure: I count Clay amongst my friends; I count Cory, who wrote the positive review, amongst my friends as well. And I don't know Nicholas Blincoe.]
I’m not going to review the book here, other than to say I really liked it. I’m sure that you can read many erudite and enlightening reviews elsewhere. All I want to do here is to share one idea that affected me deeply. And that was this: what I found really intriguing was not that cognitive surplus existed, but that it existed because people were doing less of something. In this particular case the principal activity that declined was that of watching TV, but what I found useful was the principle. That a cognitive surplus exists because time gets freed up, and if you have the tools and the motivation, then that surplus gets put to good use.
When I try to learn about social software, I tend to use music and food as analogues, as digital social objects that will help me learn about the particular medium or media. If you’ve been following this blog for long, or if you’ve been following my tweets, you’ve probably noticed that.
And so it was with the cognitive surplus notion. I started looking for sites that would help me understand how people would create collective value in ways that individuals could not, specifically in music and in food. What I hoped was that I would learn something that could be applied at work.
In this context, I’d like to bring your attention to two sites:
The first, setlist.fm, is a wiki-style repository of sets played at music concerts. You get details about a specific song.
You also get details about a particular concert. Most of the time, you can play a video of the song, get the lyrics as well.
Sometimes you can even play the song; sometimes you can watch a video of the song; sometimes you get the lyrics. In effect, what services like foxytunes were trying to do for recorded music, setlist.fm was seeking to achieve for concerts.
Let’s leave music aside for a minute, and move to food. In this context, I found airlinemeals.net truly intriguing:
So now you could check out meals to expect by class of travel, see photos of what you were likely to be served, even get ratings for the meal. And for added measure you had an idea of what the person paid for the fare. You could even travel back in history, do some Retronautical research:
I guess Pan Am made the going great. I guess Pan Am went bankrupt.
What I liked about these two examples is that they shared a number of key characteristics: the problem to be solved could not be solved easily by a small number of people, it needed distributed scale, “edit rights” for a large number of people. The problem could not be solved per se unless people wanted to share something: their memories, their photographs, their mementos and relics: in fact recording devices like cameras and tape recorders are essential equipment in this respect. And out of the cognitive surplus, real value was obtained for many classes of person: archivist, historian, aficionado, experimenter.
Incidentally, there was an example of cognitive surplus use in the weekend papers that made me cringe, that sent shivers down my spine:
Big Brother meets the Twitching Curtain. First you acquire CCTV feeds, probably the most abundant thing in the UK today. Then you add viewers, curtain-twitchers with time on their hands and who are willing to pay for the “privilege” of random voyeurism via CCTV. Finally you add the businesses prepared to pay for the alerts. The viewer pays you. The viewed business pays you. Who knows, maybe the CCTV company pays you as well. I shudder to think what the next generation of such businesses will look like.
Which leads me to my conclusion.
I’ve watched attempts at knowledge management in the enterprise fail for decades, and rationalised the failures in many ways. The technology wasn’t ready. People didn’t want to share. Management didn’t want people to share. And so on and so forth.
That was then. We live in a world where edit and upload rights are getting more democratised every day, even in the workplace. Knowledge management is now less meaningful not because knowledge has waned but because the management of knowledge has become harder, given the historical bias towards making information scarce and therefore more powerful for those who had ownership or access to that information.
But none of this is meaningful unless there is cognitive surplus in the enterprise. Which means people have to admit that they have free time, time they can devote to creating value by sharing what they know, what they have known, what they have collected, what they have archived. The tools are there. The motivation is there. But before it can happen, people have to be willing to acknowledge the existence of a time surplus at work.
This was not a problem for the agricultural sector; this was less of a problem for the industrial sector during an era of manufacturing; but now, as we are full-fledged into the tertiary “services” sector, the possibility looms large that knowledge workers will have time surpluses. Knowledge work is lumpy and non-linear, you can’t apply assembly line approaches.
So that’s where my mind is today. That the lumpy nature of knowledge work means that there are time surpluses at work. That these surpluses are Shirky Cognitive Surpluses. That the people with the surpluses have the tools and motivation to share what they know, knew and “own”. That doing this would make their lives easier; would enhance the lives of their colleagues, their trading partners, their customers. That real productive value is gained by doing this.
Imagine a wikipedia of equipment installed at homes: the positions of meters and stopcocks and telephone lines and fuseboxes; the types of equipment, in terms of makes and models and ages; the dates they were installed, the dates they were serviced. Imagine the amount of time and money wasted because we don’t have this already, the errors made, the damage caused, sometimes the lives lost. So many industries will stand to gain if we had this sort of resource.
Imagine fault reports and customer complaints and cases all being made available for anyone to annotate, the ability to apply Linus’s Law to processes at work. Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow.
It’s been a while since I wrote. I’ve had a lot to think about. This is just a sliver. I’d love to know what you think.