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January 03 2011

19:30

The cognitive surplus hates pigs. Also, Snooki.

Last week, Josh located Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus — in an epic battle against pigs.

The fact that Angry Birds consumes 200 million minutes of human attention a day, Josh pointed out, suggests an important caveat to the surplus idea: that the increasing popularity of the web — and, with it, the decreasing popularity of television — doesn’t automatically lead to more creativity capital in the world. “Even if the lure of the connected digital world gets people to skimp on the Gilligan’s Island reruns,” he noted, “that doesn’t necessarily mean their replacement behaviors will be any more productive.”

Today brings another caveat to the creativity-from-surplus concept: a finding that “television remains a refuge in the media revolution.” To the extent that, per The New York Times:

Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.

In other words: Each of us Americans spends, on average, nearly five hours boob-tubing it every day.

Having fallen prey to an epic Jersey Shore marathon over the break, I am in no position to pass judgment on this teeveetastic state of affairs. But it’s worth noting that the cognitive surplus, as an argument and a concept, is predicated on the idea that the future will find us paying significantly less attention to TV than we do now. While the Times’s “more TV than ever” framing may not be as black-and-white as it appears — as Table 2 of Nielsen’s Q3/2009 Three Screen Report makes clear, hours-per-month fluctuations are common, and you wouldn’t want to read too much into this particular blip — the numbers here are a reminder of the fragility of the surplus itself. Even with all the new digital distractions available to us, there’s very little about TV, and our relationship with it, that suggests “decline.” In the matter of wiki versus Snooki, to the extent that the two are mutually exclusive, it’s not at all clear who will emerge victorious.

That’s not to question the nuanced ideas that inform Shirky’s framing of the surplus as time spent engaged in generativity and generosity. But it is to wonder: What happens to the cognitive surplus if the surplus itself never fully shows up?

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