If someone had ever asked me directly, “Do you have any cognitive surplus?” I might first have asked, “What?” before answering, “I don’t think so.”
I want to think everything I do with my time is important. Don’t you?
Well, it turns out that’s not the case. You’d guessed that already. I want to turn in my surplus to use in the Westshore.
The book I’m using as a reference is “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” by Clay Shirky. I have not finished the book, so the best I can feel comfortable relaying is the example that Americans spend the same amount of time watching television commercials in one week (100 million hours) as had been spent in cumulative thought compiling Wikipedia through the time of the book’s writing. The book’s copyright date is 2010.
The driving theme of the book is that capturing even small pieces of that commercial time can, in aggregate, foster the creation of hugely useful tools. What else is at play here is something anyone in media can tell you: People are, in fact, spending less time watching (or reading). It may not be much less, but anything less than the two hundred billion hours of television Americans watch each year suddenly generates a cognitive surplus.
What to do with it?
Now, if you are my parents, the recommended way to use that surplus (and any bit more you can muster) would be to visit neighbors and exercise, plant a garden and attend to house maintenance.
Wouldn’t that be great? I think it is, and still can be, for those who have big blocks of that time clumped together. My time tends to be more fractured, as I edit stories on Saturday morning before taking my kids to martial arts or work on homework with them before writing a column at night.
My life is no longer 9-5, Monday through Friday.
The fascinating thing about the idea of cognitive surplus is that I don’t need big blocks of time sewn together, even if they were possible to regain.
Shirky cites heady examples of people starting websites dedicated to carpooling and fundraising used by a crowd of people who need to coordinate rides or support a project. Any one of them doesn’t spend a long time doing those things – chipping in a few bucks via PayPal or leaving a note online offering your schedule for getting to, oh, Cleveland. In aggregate, you have new business models.
In 10 minutes in the morning I share on our company’s social media pages if there are traffic concerns on I-480 or respond to tweets from a North Olmsted high school student asking about power outages.
I am also a member of the Rotary Club in Avon Lake. Recent life events aren’t conducive to my making the morning meetings. I can, however, spend 10 minutes helping the club update its Facebook page. We’re not building Wikipedia, but we are building community sentiment.
Of particular note, my interest in theciviccommons.com is well-suited to 10-minute chunks of my time. The website cites Shirky’s book in its own reason for being:
We take some of our inspiration from Clay Shirkey’s (sic) book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores how communities of people can pool small amounts of their spare time, say 10 minutes a week, to accomplish great things. With this in mind, we’ve constructed our website to enable our community members to leverage their collective efforts into greatness. What? Greatness with a minimal investment of time and effort? “Pinch me,” you say, “I must be dreamin’.”
So if you visit the site, you will see a conversation I started asking why there was so much interest in Rocky River from 16 people wanting to fill a City Council vacancy. Anyone can e-mail me directly, by all means, but the public discussion is worth it, as I also serve as managing editor for The Press in Avon Lake — where 15 residents sought to fill a council vacancy. The URL to visit the site is http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/mad-rush-to-serve–2.
I have also picked up a thread started by Alex Keleman of Westlake regarding that city’s desire to change water providers.
I have made it my volunteer interest for the year, representing to theciviccommons.com the community aspects of our paper.
I have nearly cut television out of my life, and my wife and I work hard not to foster too much interest in it from our kids. What could happen if we all donated our cognitive surplus to our communities?