What Would Happen if You De-occupy the Cognitive Surplus?

The “West” is known for its consumers. Much of the rest of the world is trying its best to head in that direction too. Reading Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, got me thinking about the stance of the passive consumer. I’m wondering if the new consumer will be a producer… that is, one who consumes that which allows him or her to produce, which may imply an end to the social possibility of un-directed free time.

I’m thinking about this in relation to Shirky’s insightful commentary on the notion of a cognitive surplus, which our era is just starting to come to grips with. He proposes this value that it’s better to do something than nothing. I don’t think I’m comfortable with that. His post highlights some of the ways that people use their time to collaborate on projects through Internet technologies and social media types of applications. The idea is that after the industrial revolution we live in an era with a significant amount of “free time” (I guess that essentially refers to time not spent in the context of a job). For a good portion of when this free time became available to us as a society, we’ve chosen to occupy it by watching television shows. Shirky, if I understood correctly, calls this doing nothing. Now, we’re waking up to the potential of this “free time” and we’re employing it in an active way–that is, doing something. Examples include writing wikipedia pages, contributing to group mapping projects, developing free and open source software, etc.

Actually, I don’t think watching TV is doing nothing. It’s doing something, passively. You let the program come to you and you don’t really direct your intentions onto anything in the world. You don’t act upon anything to produce some sort of an outcome. Since you at least have some perceptions and thinking or whatnot while you’ve positioned yourself in front of a TV, you’ve at a minimum passively-doing. So Instead I’ll refer to this as passive-doing instead of Shirky’s doing nothing, and in contrast to active-doing something (which would be the equivalent to Shirky’s doing something).

It so happens that I don’t watch much TV. I like a bit of TV and think it serves an important role (don’t want to get into that in this post though). Nevertheless people often identify excessive TV-watching as problematic. In my case, TV just rarely is my thing, and not because of what I’m doing through the Internet (though I definitely occupy myself that way too). I tend to have other activities or projects that I do (a lot of the time they don’t even involve electricity, like sometimes I’ll write with pen to paper. Sorry, did that support the stereotype?). Active-doing something and passive-doing are not doing nothing.

What’s wrong with doing nothing? Sometimes, I just sit, without a TV, and let my thoughts wander but I don’t do anything in particular. I don’t produce something or bring about some sort of change in the world (in the common sense). In fact these days I feel like I don’t do nothing often enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one as I can’t help but notice there appears to be an increasing interest in meditation–talk about doing nothing. I tend to think, as a society we’re very concerned with maintaining states of constant occupation.

This notion of a cognitive surplus points to the cultural phenomenon exploding via digital technologies. We’re waking up to what we’ve begun, socially, to do to ourselves with the Internet. And it’s amazing. Shirky’s idea seems to be that we’re just now starting to figure out how to handle all this free time. Why is it a “surplus”? Can we have such a surplus?

Surplus leads me toward supply and demand, production and resources; it feels rooted in commerce. The television watcher that Shirky implies was doing nothing (passive-doing) was a consumer of free time. But according to Shirky this has changed, now this same person can be doing something, in other words producing something via the Internet and social applications, or else some other modicum of digital living. Shirky says

“And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, ‘If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.'”

I ask, why is it better to do something than to do nothing? Why should that be a general principle? Why the grounds for how we occupy our free time?

What about an evening occupied at a playhouse? In a sense this is quite similar to TV. Except we tend to consider the play an art that is outside the realm of television. It’s still essentially as passive, in the sense of doing, as watching TV. Some plays involve audience participation but these are hardly the norm–perhaps there is a reason participatory plays aren’t more popular. Sometimes we need to not occupy ourselves with producing. With being “on” and actively involved, our intentions trained on doing.

If the regular consumer of free time shifts his consumption from one of TV watching (passive-doing) to one of researching, debating, and writing Wikipedia entries (active-doing something) then doesn’t he become a producer? He’s consuming his free time by producing (intentions and energy trained at doing something), which is exactly what so many Web 2.0/social media enterprises are hoping will make their business models successful. Shirky is right in more ways than one to make his industrial revolution/gin stupor comparison to our current day digital tech & Internet/TV situation.

I wonder if we’re losing our ability to develop the mental dexterity which enables us to wander through an open-ended forest of perspectives on what we do do. The notion of reflection could be lost. If we always occupy our free time by doing something, we’re occupying ourselves out of time we might otherwise occupy in, for example, meditation. If using the cognitive surplus means we take up the value that doing something is better than doing nothing, I fear we may create a problem as unhealthy as the excess in passive-doing known as watching TV.

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