Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky has written a sequel (2010) to Here Comes Everybody. Cognitive surplus relates to the amount of free time that humans have to engage in activities of their choice. Consumptive acts like watching TV have dominated our free time since the 1940s. Work, sleep, and watching TV are the 3 most common activities of mankind. Shirky views compulsive TV viewing as a modern version of the Gin Craze in 18th century London, where the masses binged as a self-anesthetizing response to epochal social disruptions.

Television reduces human contact - a social surrogacy phenomenon. Shirky defines a metric for the sum total of cognitive surplus in the aggregate of educated people. Wikipedia (counting every edit in every language) represents about 100 million hours of cumulative human thought. Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV every year, or 2,000 Wikipedias of free time.

Media is like a triathlon - People consume, produce, and share. Now, interactive media are shifting our behavior away from broadcast media that are purely consumptive. While the Internet is 40 years old and the Web is 20 years old, some people are astonished that individual members of society, previously happy to spend most of their free time consuming, would start voluntarily making and sharing things. People often worry about the negative impact of digital media on face-to-face contact, yet political actions brought about by Facebook and Twitter enable large scale assembly.

Shirky develops a typical oversight he dubs a "milkshake mistake." McDonald's wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so it hired researchers to figure out how to improve the product. One researcher studied the customers instead of the product. One surprising discovery was that many were purchased for breakfast. Also, the buyers were alone, they only bought the shake, and they never drank it in the store. Customers were buying the shake so they could eat while driving. The researchers made two milkshake mistakes: (1) everything important about the product was implicit in its attributes, (2) treat habits as deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. The same mistakes can be made thinking about media. The possibility of the social uses of media tools wasn't implicit in the tools themselves. The pure consumption of traditional media was never a sacred tradition, it was a set of accumulated accidents.

Ushahidi (Swahili for "witness") was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya. When the Kenyan media banned the broadcast of violence resulting from a disputed election, a Kenyan political activist blogged about the violence. She then asked readers to post comments about the violence on the blog, Kenyan Pundit. As responses flooded in, she enlisted the help of programmers to create a service in 2008 that would automatically aggregate reporting and mapping in real time. Ushahidi developers added the ability to submit info via text message from mobile phones. Governments act less violently when they are being observed. Since its debut, Ushahidi has been expanded to other countries and was used to locate injured in the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.

Scale makes big surpluses function differently from small ones. Shirky relates how as a 16-year old visiting New York, seeing pizza by the slice was a minor epiphany. With a large enough crowd, unpredictable events become predictable. Once the certainty of demand is divorced from individual customers and remanded to the aggregate, new classes of activity become possible. Shirky quotes Nobel physicist Philip Anderson with his mantra "More is different," after an article in Science (1972). New communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share. Shirky asks what are the chances that a person with a camera will come across an event of global significance ? Extrapolating from an egocentric view can mike the likelihood seem small. Cameras embedded in phones now number over a billion. The chance that someone with a camera will come across an event of global significance is rapidly becoming the chance that such an event has any witnesses at all. Formerly unlikely events become certainties as we share one another's cognitive surpluses in aggregate. The wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource.

When the police want to understand whether someone could have taken a particular action, they look for means, motive, and opportunity. Further, these three aspects help to determine the appearance of new behaviors in society. The following chapters examine the hows, whys, and wheres of cognitive surplus.

Means. Gutenberg introduced movable type in the mid-15th century. He realized that if you made carvings of individual letters, they could be arranged into words and reused. Movable type introduced an abundance of books. A printer could print 300 copies of a book for the same price a scribe could produce a single copy. Hence scribal capacity was given over to reproducing extant works. The idea of bookmaking was centered on re-creating, not producing "novel" books. In an historical eye blink, printers started printing books that were diverse, contemporary, and vulgar (native language), hence the word novel was born. Production of books that no one had ever read before created a new problem - risk ! A printer who printed a book that no one wanted to read would soon be out of business. Printers of Bibles and Aristotle never had that problem. In order to manage that risk, printers were forced to be responsible for the quality of books. The transition from printers to publishers was brought on by the desire to print novel books. This Gutenberg economics is all about the burden of enormous investment costs, evident today in entertainment media like CDs and movies, where 15th century risk management is still invoked.

Before Gutenberg, the average book was a masterpiece. After Gutenberg, erotic novels, dull travelogues, and hagiographies of the landed gentry are of interest to few today. Freedom and quality are conflicting goals. The easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what gets published becomes. Yet increasing freedom to publish has compensating values, such as an increase in experimentation of form.

Contributors now share creative content with aggregators like Facebook or YouTube, who employ a paid staff. This pattern has been dubbed digital sharecropping, after the post-Civil War sharecroppers who worked the land but didn't own it or the food they grew on it. The people sharing photos and videos don't expect to be paid. It is fundamental that these are acts of sharing rather than production. Their labors are labors of love.

Motive. Doing something because it interests you makes it a different kind of activity than doing it because you are reaping an external reward. Edward Deci at the Univ. of Rochester, distinguish between two broad types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are those in which the activity itself is the reward. Intrinsic motivations can be characterized by the desire to (1) be autonomous and (2) competent. Extrinsic motivations are those in which the reward for doing something is external to the activity, not the activity itself. The bottom line is that money crowds out love. Note that the origin of the word "amateur" is from the Latin "amare" - "to love", so an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. For a given activity the two motivations are not additive as payment can crowd out intrinsic motivation. Other psychologists have challenged the crowding-out effect as inapplicable to real world actions and is limited to free choice by the individual. After all, where is this relevant ? In an age where free choice and talent are joint resources, the answer is "Everywhere."

Shirky gets into an interesting discussion of the denizens of, the community of people who write new stories set in the imagined worlds of existing fictional works. FanFiction hosts more tan half a million Harry Potter stories, not to mention those that are hosted by Contributors are looking for little more than attention, often requesting fellow authors to read and review (R&R) their submissions. Authors acknowledge that they do not own the characters or the universe in which they appear, but believe they own new plots. Those authors looking to profit from fanfic are chastised. Most would agree that fanfic authors are not within the normal bounds of copyright law, but they feel they have safe harbor in an act based on love, not money.

Opportunity. Shirky makes an effort to distinguish opportunity from means. Opportunity is viewed as a way of taking advantage of our ability to participate (means) in concert where we previously consumed alone. Cognitive surplus is not merely trillions of hours of free time spread across 2 billion connected individuals. Rather, it is communal, we must combine our surplus free time if it is to be useful, and we can only do that given the right opportunities. Human character is the essential component of our sociable and generous behaviors. High-tech tools enable these behaviors, they do not cause them.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel economist, coined the term "theory-induced blindness." Remember the milkshake mistake ? The unexpected uses of communications tools are surprising because old beliefs about human nature are poor. Once you stop asking about why people do things for free and just start asking why they are doing them, the concept of intrinsic motivation is part of the explanation.

Behavioral economics is a body of experimental cognitive science that is rapidly growing. It is demonstrating that humans don't always act in self-interested ways. The Ultimatum Game is one of the best known games in social science. It is a two-person interaction, with a proposer and a responder. The game starts when the partner is given $10 and is instructed to share the money between the two of you. The only say you have is whether or not to accept the offer. If you accept she keeps the balance, if you don't accept, neither gets anything. Neoclassical economics predicts your partner will offer $1 and will keep $9. $1 is more than nothing and hence preferable to no deal. In practice the game doesn't work this way, the Proposer typically offer $4-$5, which the Responder typically accepts. The Responder typically refuses lower amounts. This result is a shock to neoclassical economics - what actor would refuse a free dollar for the sake of mere emotional satisfaction ? Versions of this game were run with more money and other variations, but rationality never won out. No group of responders was ever moved to accept a proposed split that deviated too far from some perceived sense of fairness. In the Ultimatum Game people behave as if their relationship matters. Because we are deeply social, participants are hard pressed to assume a role of anonymity. We are incapable of behaving as if we were not members of a larger society. Rejecting ungenerous splits is a communicative and social act rather than a cognitive mistake. It is referred to as "altruistic punishment," since people derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing.

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