From Caveman to Sufi Sheikh: Some Thoughts on Cognitive Surplus and Technology Deficits

This is the first of two blog posts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” Clay disagrees with the notion that new communication tools craft new behaviors. I agree. “What if we’ve always wanted to produce [media] as well as consume, but no one offered us that opportunity?”

Technology has long limited our behavior as a gregarious, mobile species, not created new ones. “Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.” We thought that “sharing was inherently rather than accidentally limited to small, tight-knit groups.”

So when we come across a surprising new application of technology, “instead of asking Why is this new?” which produces a technology centric answer, “we can [and should] ask Why is it a surprise?” The technology deficit (my own term) has long constrained our behaviors.

Lets take our favorite Caveman from the Geico commercials, for example. The technology deficit during those days meant that our caveman was constrained to static cave paintings. But surely Caveman would have preferred the Web to share his group’s story (or buy cheap mammoth insurance) rather than a darkly-lit cave with limited access. In fact, Flickr would have been perfect for Caveman. Another constraint with caves is the limited space for comments. Caves represent a technology deficit that prevented preferred behavior.

Lets take my friend Ma Al Eineen as an other example. I met Sheikh Ma Al Aineen, the grandson of the Blue Sultan of the Sahara, on the Western Sahara border with Mauritania some 10 years ago. He loved joking about how the cell phone was the perfect technology for nomads. Did cell phones cause nomadic behavior amongst nomads? No, nomads have always been nomadic and the fixed land line phone restricted that behavior.

This leads me to the following point: bounded crowdsourcing (which I blogged about here) is an accident caused by technology deficits. Information wants to be open but it’s been bounded by technology and power trips. “Bounded crowdsourcing” is nothing new. Indeed, restricting information flows has been the “default setting” for thousands of years. So why use the new term “bounded crowdsourcing” then?

As Clay notes, “the privilege of establishing what value the default is set at is an act of power and influence.” The use of the adjective bounded is thus as much of normative statement as it is a descriptive one. Crowdsourcing is information collection unrestricted by technology and entrenched interests. It is the norm, the “original” default setting. Anything that deviates from this is the result of tech deficits and/or of power interests.

Patrick Philippe Meier

6 responses to “From Caveman to Sufi Sheikh: Some Thoughts on Cognitive Surplus and Technology Deficits

  1. Here is Clay discussing cognitive surplus, including Ushahidi and reference to its use in crisis mapping after the Haiti earthquake:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cognitive_surplus_will_change_the_world.html

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