Ok, so apparently I’m not the only one to connect Clay Shirky’s recent talk about “cognitive surplus” with Dan Pink. Wired had an article a while back where the two converse about motivation and collaboration. It’s a pretty good read (though suffers a strange overly-polished tone), but it won’t hold any revelations if you’ve watched their TED talks.
There is one aspect of this that bothers me, though. Early on in the dialog, Shirky says that if we, “… start thinking of [our free time] as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population—maybe a trillion hours per year—is a new resource.” Of course he’s right. It’s a wonderful new resource that is already being harnessed. As they mention, this “cognitive surplus” is being used to create serious open source projects like Linux and Apache, great resources like the Wikipedia, and even all the dumb Youtube movies and LOLcats you could ever want to see.
Still, I’m wary of thinking of our free time as a “resource” for achieving new levels of productivity. Shirky says of free time:
People have had lots of free time for as long as there’s been the industrialized world. But that free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television.
This observation wouldn’t bother me at all if Shirky were bemoaning the loss of tight-knit communities and face-to-face interaction, but instead he seems to be advocating converting all of that television-watching time Wikipedia-editing time. There’s something disturbing in this.
Does this mean that, when we’re done with a full day’s work, we’re supposed to come home and ignore our communities while working for several more hours, this time for free? Is it too much to expect a few hours of rest and socializing?
In fairness, I haven’t yet read either of their books, so I don’t know if they address this problem better. Still, I think this is connected to the niggling question I was trying to put together in my last post: Shirky seems eager to exploit the resource of free-time, but doesn’t seem to ask the question, what does this mean for our work-time?
Our society tends to take for granted that we must all suffer the sometimes absurd effects of economic inequality, and we accept this because using money as a motivator is the only way to create a productive society. Shirky and Pink argue that money is often a terrible motivator and can actually have adverse effects on productivity, and then they continue on as though they haven’t noticed that they may have knocked out our society’s underpinnings.
Here’s my parting thought: Clay Shirky presents Ushahidi.com as a triumph of “cognitive surplus” because it was made by developers in their spare time. Might it instead be a shortcoming of our economic system that these developers were forced to do such important work in their spare time?
(Sorry if this is muddled, but this is a product of my cognitive surplus, and not of my work life– i.e. I’m tired.)
Edit: I suppose I’m not arguing with anything Pink/Shirky are explicitly saying. I’m worried that people might be looking at these discoveries about human motivation and thinking, “This is great! You mean, not only can we get people to work their normal crappy 9-to-5 job, but we can use new motivational tricks to get them to go home and keep working for free. Now, if we could only keep people from sleeping, people could work 24 hours a day!”
To me, the story shouldn’t be “people will work for free” but instead “coercing people to work under threat of homelessness and starvation might not be necessary.”