Using the Cognitive Surplus to Connect People

Over the last few days, I was at The Economist’s ideas conference, where a common thread was about utilizing the cognitive surplus to collaborate and change the world. Coined by Clay Shirky, the cognitive surplus is the free time the world has, that they otherwise spend watching television, to contribute to projects, share knowledge, and be creative. In the world, humans watch over one trillion hours of television a year. In America alone, we watch about 200 billion hours of television. 

All the content on Wikipedia was created with less than one tenth of one percent of that amount of time. If you measure time in hours that Americans watch television per year, it only took half a year to write all the articles and comments on the entire internet. Why are we spending such a huge amount of time (by any standards of materiality) on such a passive activity? 

People have had lots of free time for as long as there’s been the industrialized world. But that free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television. – Shirky in Wired.

Oftentimes, people think that they don’t have free time to participate in projects, meet others, and do new things, but it’s just all about how you allocate the time that you do have. I know that Shirky is a fan of using principles of generosity to encourage people to altruistically contribute content on the internet, but it’s bigger than that. With 2 billion people online throughout the world out of 4.5 billion adults in total, the cognitive surplus can also be utilized to connect people to disrupt traditional industries (like the travel industry) that take advantage of the fact people were not able to connect with one another.

It’s about reducing income inequality, giving people access, and empowering people (rather than corporate entities) everywhere to shape their own communities and lifestyles. So start devoting those hours in front of the television to connecting with someone new and sharing your insights with them! 

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