This is the second of two blog posts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” The “cognitive surplus” that Clay refers to is the ” buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population.” And unlike any other time in human history, “we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.”
The notion of “cognitive surplus” touches on some of the arguments I’ve made regarding the competition between digital activists and repressive regimes—the time and organizational factor. As noted by this guide on nonviolent struggle, “time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle.” The question is, which side—or organizational topology—can make best use of this time?
The trillion hours of free time and low cost of discovery afforded by today’s communication technologies means that individuals can find themselves more easily and network around a cause. This gives rise to new actors as noted by Clay:
The competition between the government and the people has thus become an arms race, but one that involves a new class of participants. When teenage girls can help organize events that unnerve national governments, without needing professional organizations or organizers to get the ball rolling, we are in new territory.
I don’t think the same is true of repressive regimes. Give a dictator more free time but will they spend this time finding new creative ways to repress? Or will they instead spend this extra time buying new luxury cars while taking time off on a yacht off the coast of Monaco? Ah, but how about those who work for said dictator? Clay argues that “having to act on behalf of an authority can be one of life’s great demotivators.” Moreover,
Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare—to love. The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.
This motivation also affects how amateurs work in groups. Keeping a large group focused can be a full-time job. (It’s middle management’s reason for being, in one phrase). Organizing groups into an effective whole is brutally difficult that, past a certain scale, it requires professional management. Professional managers in turn require salaries, and salaries require income and bookkeeping and all the rest of the trappings of a formal organization, meaning there is a huge step between a bunch of people who really care about that issue and work together to do something about it.
This goes to the heart of my hypothesis for my dissertation research. See my previous blog post: Where I Stand on Digital Activism. In sum, the unprecedented trillion hour cognitive surplus is more likely to empower digital activists at the expense of coercive regimes.