Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Genorisity in a Connected Age, gives an overview of society from pre-idustrialism through to the present day and forecasts the effect social media will play in the coming future.

Historically, looking at pre-industrial London, most of the citizens drank copious amounts of gin. According to Shirky this was their “social lubrication” – they used their free time to drink. They drank as life in pre-industrialized London was hard and dirty and this provided them with a coping mechanism. During industrialization however, the concept of the 40 hour week was introduced – 8 hours a day to work, 8 to sleep and 8 to do whatever you wanted with. Combined with increases in educational attainment, increases in life expectancy and advancements in technology, society had to find something to do with all this new found free time – so they watched TV. Alot of TV. That is changing with the explosion in social media that allows society to become not just consumers, but also creators and active participants on a global scale. To put this in perspective, Shirky shares that US adults spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV whilst it took just 100 million hours to create wikipedia into what it is today.

Shirky poses the question: Imagine what we could do if we could harness a small fraction of the world’s cognitive surplus?

It got me thinking of the huge amount of time, we as educators spend reinventing the wheel – especially in the areas of curriculum and policy. Wouldn’t it be great to have a one-stop shop that pooled evidenced-based best practice, PBL resources, cross-curricular ideas, self-paced professonal development modules etc. etc.

Clay Shirky spoke at a TED event in June of 2010 – have a look if you get the chance.