Our “cognitive surplus” is temporary, just like the fossil fuels that power it

In his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus, released in hardcover with the subtitle “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” and in paperback with the subtitle “How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators,” Clay Shirky expanded his reputation as everybody’s favorite digital guru by arguing that “new digital technology” — primarily of the social media sort — “is unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world. For the first time, people are embracing new media that allow them to pool their efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind-expanding reference tools like Wikipedia to life-saving Web sites like Ushahidi.com, which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence in real time. [The book] explores what’s possible when people unite to use their intellect, energy, and time for the greater good.”

Here he is expounding the idea in a popular TED talk:

Although Shirky can be criticized for an undue optimism, since it’s quite likely that his view of how people tend to use the freeing of their time and mental energy by technology is overly rosy, the fact that such a freeing-up has happened is incontrovertible. And now comes a paper written by two experts in digital communications and published in one of the longest-running online journals about the Internet itself that argues the cognitive surplus is a side effect of our massive exploitation of fossil fuels, and that its fate and future will therefore parallel the arc of fossil fuel-based civilization, which is, in the wide scope of things, a fleeting phase in human history, since “fossil fuels are not forever.”

Bill Tomlinson is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine, and a researcher at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. M. Six Silberman is a field interpreter with the Bureau of Economic Interpretation. Here’s the abstract of their paper, which is highly readable, and also well worth reading:

People in the industrial world have a great deal of free time. Clay Shirky has described this free time, considered as a whole, as a vast “cognitive surplus,” and presents many efforts currently under way to use the cognitive surplus for prosocial ends. However, the cognitive surplus came to exist largely as a result of labor-saving devices that run on fossil fuels. Many problems relating to fossil fuels constrain how people can responsibly use the cognitive surplus to address environmental sustainability and other current concerns. We suggest that an excellent use of the present cognitive surplus is to help society prepare for an energy-scarce future — that is, a future that may not be able to support the existence of a cognitive surplus at the current level.

– Bill Tomlinson and M. Six Silberman, “The cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels,” First Monday, Vol. 17, No. 11 (November 5, 2012)

And here’s the portion in which they describe the specific future they foresee for the cognitive surplus as directly related to changing patterns of Internet usage based on the inevitable, and probably socially traumatic, move away from fossil fuels:

In the absence of an alternate energy source (solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, etc.) at a very large scale, growing scarcity of fossil fuels will have a profound impact on the cognitive surplus. If energy prices rise significantly, people will no longer engage in as many energetically demanding activities. Individuals will eat less food imported from distant locales, make transportation decisions with a greater awareness of gas prices, and revisit many other lifestyle choices. Corporations will find it more economically viable to hire people to do tasks previously done by machines, reversing the trend that accompanied the growth in energy availability since the industrial revolution. And the number of free hours people have for watching television and other media-consumption activities will likely fall, as people need to work harder to maintain the same standard of living.

Alternately, some may be unwilling to give up their free time, and may instead accept a reduction in standard of living. In this case, the energetic costs of the computational infrastructure, from the manufacture of electronics to the maintenance of global networks, will likely cause the percentage of the cognitive surplus that is spent online to drop significantly. This drop would lead to a reduction in the cognitive surplus available for online participatory culture activities.

As electronics become more expensive and demand for them drops, the incentive for computing research and development may be reduced. The lack of innovation and lack of demand may cause the steady growth of processing power and memory available on computers, known as Moore’s law, to level off and even begin to decline. If these events transpire, we may reach a point of “peak information,” where access to information no longer grows each day.

These scenarios point to industrialized civilization achieving either “peak cognitive surplus” in absolute terms (due to people working harder and having less free time), or simply “peak online surplus” (where some still have free time, but do not spend it online). In either case, the growth in the voluntary creation of online content is likely to decline significantly.

Note the implications of these predictions for such acts as — most pertinently at the moment — hopping online to read and/or write blogs like the one you’re reading now. Although the overall point that Tomlinson and Silberman draw is to encourage the deliberate use of our cognitive surplus to consolidate the social gains (in human rights, expanded tolerance for diversity, etc.) that have accompanied industrial society,  we can also recognize the situation as a clear call to begin actively pursuing a program of cultural preservation, especially on an individual, personal level, since the sprawling networked society of Internet-industrial civilization may be a fleeting phantom on the historical stage, and also since the situation at large is likely to become increasingly grim and dystopian over time.

In other words, we can take this circumstance as a further reinforcement of the call for each of us to begin cultivating a personal version of Morris Berman’s monastic response to a dying civilization. In this regard, recall again Tim Kreider’s praise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in The New York Times earlier this year. Kreider pointed out that Bradbury, in addition to foreseeing the overall shape of the future correctly, also offered notes on how to live well in such a situation:

Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace … Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet …  It is thanks to Ray Bradbury that I understand this world I grew into for what it is: a dystopian future. And it is thanks to him that we know how to conduct ourselves in such a world: arm yourself with books. Assassinate your television. Go for walks, and talk with your neighbors. Cherish beauty; defend it with your life.

– Tim Kreider, “Uncle Ray’s Dystopia,” The New York Times, June 8, 2012

As Berman puts it in The Twilight of American Culture, “you can choose a way of life that becomes its own ‘monastery,’ that preserves the treasures of our heritage for yourself, and, hopefully, for future generations.” Along with shoring up the societal advances that have come with industrialization, it’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile use of the current cognitive surplus than this, nor a more effective way to help ensure that any such surplus that may be retained or revived in a dystopian and/or energy-starved, deindustrial future will be accompanied by a valuable treasury of knowledge and wisdom with which to enrich itself.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on November 24, 2012, in Science & Technology, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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