January 04, 2020

By Clifford Young

With all of the uncertainty and change in our world, people can be forgiven for thinking most of the “news” is bad. And in truth, we Americans are angst ridden with multiple studies showing that we are more lonely, depressed, and generally exhausted (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).

Over the last few years, I’ve often written about disintegrating social cohesion and political tribalism (Age of Uncertainty, Country Music, Democratic norms), issues I consider to be some of the primary stress factors in our increasingly uncertain world. It seems that in contemporary society we fight over everything. I, for one, know that all political topics will be absolutely off limits at the Young holiday dinner table this year.

Pundits and scholars have attributed this new divisiveness to the rise of mass media and social media. Many argue that the outcomes are negative: helping illiberal regimes (Mounk), fueling hyper-partisanship (Can Liberal Democracy Survive Social Media?), loneliness (How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy), and mental health issues (Journal of Medical Internet Research).

So much gloom and doom!

But there are obvious upsides to our brave new world as well. Personally, I keep thinking back to the concept of cognitive surplus first coined by Clay Shirky (Cognitive Surplus, Ted Talk) in 2010. In a nutshell, he points out the potential of the internet as a way to allow for productive expression by society for the first time in generations.

I haven’t been able to get this concept out of my head since.

Shirky zeroes in on the evolution in how humans consume and produce entertainment. For most of human history, we have entertained ourselves in small groups by telling stories, play-acting, singing, etc.  In other words, we were both the consumers and producers of content.

While content production became more industrialized with the advent of the printing press and the subsequent expansion of literacy, for most of history, we made our own entertainment with our hands, voices, and bodies (On Tattoos and Identity).

With the popularization of radio in the 1920’s and TV in the 40’s, all that changed. Suddenly, humans became passive consumers of content and entertainment produced by others. We’ve been glued to the tube ever since. Data shows that a sizable chunk of the average American’s disposable free time is allocated to watching TV (about 3 hours), just behind work and ahead of all other activities.

Put differently, much of our potential available time is taken up being mindless consumption drones.

That’s why the advent of the internet has the potential to bring us back to our natural state of consumer-producers again. Think of open source platforms like Wikipedia or Sound Cloud and the explosion of content and shared collective knowledge they have helped drive.

As Shirky tells us, the key to cognitive surplus is scale, which the internet provides in abundance.

Let’s imagine, as a thought experiment, what would happen if everyone shaved off a few minutes of their TV-watching time per day and used it for other ends. In a non-connected society those minutes would most likely remain in the home and the by-products of their use would fade into the background. But a connected society allows people to contribute their time towards building a shared sense of belonging. Shirky estimates the aggregate cognitive surplus to be at almost a trillion hours globally.

It’s an interesting concept, leading me to wonder how many Americans are already creating original content online. We ran a poll to see how often Americans are using social media and posting their own content.

Here, we can see that more than a quarter of Americans are already contributing to the total sum of online content on a weekly basis or more frequently. And while much of this content is undoubtedly simple fare like selfies, lunch reports, or family stories, it does bring us closer to the place where people can create their own stories in addition to consuming others.

As Shirky argues, the content individuals produce can – when aggregated across millions and billions of people – become a powerful force transforming society. There is a link between producer-consumer and emotional and social goods. What benefits (or interests or entertains) the individual on a personal level, when multiplied millions of times over, takes on a life of its own and can help shape society.

In other words, the same fundamental social energy that animates people to produce cat memes (for instance) can be channeled towards social good, such as platforms offering microloans to people in developing countries (Kiva).


So, despite the headlines -- modernity is not all doom and gloom. There are glimmers of hope.

We see how people are willing to put their ideas, jokes, and personal feelings out there. From cat videos to serious collective problem solving, content is building new worlds online.

Sure, some of this digital activity is harmful. But our new digital selves are also witnesses to the marvelous human capacity to adapt. It gives us the space to do what we are designed to do as intrinsically curious, social creatures: build communities and consume and produce our preferred forms of entertainment.

It’s impossible to imagine where all this knowledge sharing will ultimately take us one day. And imagine, as Shirky proposes, if we could channel all that energy. Think how quickly we could solve our collective problems, as individuals working together as an aggregate digital tribe of consumer-producers.


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