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Lunch break

Clay Shriky explains how "cognitive surplus" -- all those hours we have to do stuff that we previously used for watching other people do stuff -- will change the world.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 29, 2010; 12:33 PM ET
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He should have mentioned that that cognitive surplus will be slow on the civic side, as it will product 99% lol-catz and Farmville collaborations (and participatory but not civically productive comments on blog posts) and about 1% actual civic contribution, per his example.

Otherwise, people will just be waiting for the transformation to magically happen and make the world a better place by next Christmas, and they will be disappointed.

Although, I'm jaded. I was predicting a radical improvement in computer and medical technology by 2010 (and similar improvements in all other fields), just because communication and collaboration possibilities had improved 1000 fold from 1985 to 1995. I figured, all these smart heads getting together, able to participate in list-servs and instant messaging and Go To Meeting and WebDAV and WiFi and yada-yada, cancer would be cured and I'd be riding up the space elevator for my moon resort vacation by now.

These TED talks are usually all kinds of awesome, but when they start going over the implication of research and new technology for the real world, I sigh. It sounds like it's right around the corner, but I'm pretty certain most of the innovations discussed will move into general use at about the same speed they did back in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

Unless it's a fancy new HTML5/Ajax interface to a website. Then it'll probably see general adoption to 6 to 8 weeks.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 29, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

very, very interesting lecture!
creating, sharing and goodwill.....
it could change the world!

one can hope!
one can dream!

Posted by: jkaren | June 29, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I hope anyone who buys into the "cognitive surplus" theory reads Marc Andrejevic's brilliant book iSpy. It shows how much of the activity Shirky talks about gets channeled into pretty useless, or downright frightening, endeavors.

Posted by: pasqualefrank | June 29, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Your video postings are getting better and better, Ezra!

I remember thinking about what this guy characterizes as the "communal" v. "civic" problem while I was watching that Wordplay movie about the creators of The New York Times crossword puzzle. I was thinking about how, if we can get all these passionate and smart people to use their problem-solving ingenuity for more meaningful purposes, we'd could more rapidly solve more meaningful problems. But something seems to stop us, and I haven't found out what that something is yet. As Kevin_Willis intimates, this is an age-old problem.

I don't know anything at all about crowdsourcing, but it seems one way to get people to contribute to society is to make doing so a barrier to entry into something fun or necessary. Donating a can of food at the entrance of a concert in the park is an oldie but a goodie. A newer version would be using Captchas to help digitize books a la Luis von Ahn:

Beyond getting people interested in using their talents for more civic-minded work, there's also the problem of connecting those in need with those with the skills. For instance, those developers in the audience of the talk that inspired Ushahidi were probably already civic-minded folks. Otherwise (and I'm just guessing here), they probably wouldn't have been there in the first place. But it seems like a bit of luck that they were there and ready to help. I don't know...maybe people check Craigslist for stuff like this, but my impression is that civic-minded communities are so thoroughly subdivided and niche into themselves that cross-pollination of talent and ideas seems like a huge challenge. Sites like seem like they could be helpful in this situation, but they're certainly not as ubiquitous as sites like Craigslist. But then, that brings us back to our first problem of getting more people civically engaged.

So, yeah...there's that.

Posted by: slag | June 29, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - Will you please post more information on how you journalist keep your liberal spin going, making seem as though you are not biased when in fact you are actually actively participating in party politics strategy?

Has Ann Althouse informed you of a slander lawsuit yet? I cannot wait to hear more about the discovery in THAT suit once its filed?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | June 29, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

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