Cognitive Surplus, or Clay Shirky’s desperate hunger for relevance (and book sales)

I can’t decide whether or not I like Clay Shirky.  He can be either inspiring or insane, but he is always an idealist.  His most recent brain diarrhea is charmingly titled “Cognitive Surplus”, in which he muses that all the tens of millions of people watching TV right now represent a miraculous amount of untapped brainpower.  It is an alluring concept, and people often use Wikipedia as an example of what this so-called Cognitive Surplus can accomplish.  I dare to disagree.  The people who edit Wikipedia are not spending their “surplus”, they are deriving enjoyment from sharing their knowledge on Wikipedia (as do I, on occasion).  I could be watching TV right now, or playing Call of Duty, or riding my bike, instead I have chosen to type shit on the interweb.  This is what I do for fun.  Thinking can be fun for some people, but to assume we can take all the non-thinkers and turn them into productive thinkers is extremely naive.  Most people use social media for two things: chatting with friends and getting laid.

Reality Check

Let’s rewind for a moment.  Clay Shirky has a knack for making trivial concepts appear seductive.  Sure, at any point in time there are a gazillion people doing nothing useful – that’s a given, and I would dare say it’s part of the normal ebb-and-flow of human activity.  Every moment of genius is balanced by a moment of jaw-dropping imbecility.  Every up has its down.  Sometimes I’m spot-on, other times I’m talking crazy.  It balances out.

I also posit that about 98% of human minds out there can barely count to two.  I think it’s a safe assumption to say that the average Jersey Shore watcher’s untapped brainpower is next-to-nil.  It’s not like they’re going to write their grand theory of the universe in between recaps of Snooki’s cleavage.  They might write a Wikipedia page about Snooki’s cleavage, but that hardly counts as useful.  What would I consider useful ?  Changing Jersey Shore’s wikipedia page to “Don’t watch this, it’s stupid” to warn others.  If you’re medically-inclined, I would also give bonus points for inventing a device that sterilizes all guidos and guidettes.

Smart Brains are Dangerous Brains

The idle mind is a volatile mind.  It is far too easy for us technophiles to erroneously assume that the world’s problems could be solved with a little more brains and a little less ignorance.  The internet age has brought vast tomes of information right up to our eyeballs, but has it made us smarter ?  We might know about a bunch more topics, and have quick access to the remainder, but has it brought us closer to a game-changing collective pool of intellect ?

I can personally attest that my idle time is usually spent making myself more miserable.  I sniff out conspiracy theories and other nonsense, I read up on the many ways I’m getting screwed by bankers and governments, and I gaze in awe at all the idiots who are crowding my career of choice with endless streams of bullshit.  That’s not so bad, but what is truly terrifying is that I keep bumping into random people who share this misery.  People who otherwise seem bright and peaceful, until I drop a trigger word that switches them into quack mode.  We’re not talking about curing cancer or saving the rainforests, we’re talking about how banking is the source of all the world’s problems and how Harper is turning our once-pleasant nation into the 51st state.  This intellectual misery is the true product of “cognitive surplus”.  If we’re not watching TV, we’re watching the world slide into ruin.  It’s times like these when I say things like “ignorance is bliss” or “I wish I were stupid like everyone else”.

False Progress

Shirky once said: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious!  You’ve just summarized capitalism.  The real danger of these half-baked ideas and quotable nonsense is they enjoin people to a false cause, when they could be better applied to something tangible.  Yes, capitalism is fucked up, and yes, corporations are evil things that shackle progress.  Wrapping that idea in a catchy mock-intellectual phrase isn’t going to fix anything.  It’s good for a Demotivator slogan and a cynical laugh followed by a little sigh.

Knowing the problem exists is one thing, knowing how to solve it is an entirely different beast.  Even if we could actually tap into TV watchers’ unused grey matter, what would we do with it ?  Where is the global project manager with a prioritized list of tasks ?  If we know how to reach a solution, and all we’re missing  is tedious calculations, we use supercomputers.  We can build them as large and powerful as we want, and they are orders of magnitude faster than our brains.  They also don’t have opinions, so they don’t bicker over the validity of one approach over another, they just do it.  The concept of Cognitive Surplus falls apart because human minds are not consistent.  You can crowd-source all you want, the net result will be more people pissed off at each other for holding different beliefs.

I get that Shirky loves the internet as much as I do, maybe even more, but someone needs to hammer it into his skull that Social Media is not the cosmic solution, it is merely a business model.  No matter how much we evangelize technology and mock collaboration, Facebook isn’t going to cure cancer.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.