Magazine article The Futurist

Tapping the Cognitive Surplus: The Sudden Bounty of Accessible Creativity, Insight, and Knowledge Is a Public Treasure, Says a Network Guru

Magazine article The Futurist

Tapping the Cognitive Surplus: The Sudden Bounty of Accessible Creativity, Insight, and Knowledge Is a Public Treasure, Says a Network Guru

Article excerpt

Imagine treating the free time of the world's educated citizenry as a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would that surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so let's start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit--every edit made to every article, every argument about those edits, for every language in which Wikipedia exists. That would represent something like 100 million hours of human thought.

One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. A television producer once asked me about people who volunteer to edit Wikipedia, "Where do they find the time?" The people posing this question don't understand how tiny that entire project is relative to the aggregate free time we all possess. How much is all that time spent on Wikipedia compared with the amount of time we spend watching television? Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV every year. That represents about 2,000 Wikipedia projects' worth of time annually. Even tiny subsets of this time are enormous: We spend roughly a hundred million hours every weekend just watching commercials.

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The good news about our current, remarkable age is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be wiled away one person at a time.

Wikipedia is one well-known example; here's another you may not have heard of, a service called Ushahidi (Swahili for "witness") developed to help Kenyan citizens track outbursts of ethnic violence. The originator, human rights activist Ory Okolloh, imagined a service that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting of attacks with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time. She floated the idea on her blog, attracting the attention of programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia, who helped Ushahidi.com go live.

Several months later, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government compared the site's data to that of the mainstream media and concluded that Ushahidi had been better than the big media at reporting acts of violence as they started, better at reporting acts of nonfatal violence (which are often a precursor to deaths), and better at reporting over a wide geographical area, including rural districts.

You don't need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones can be all that's required. …

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