Clay Shirky: Unlocking Mankind’s Untapped Potential
Last year Americans spent 200 billion hours of their time watching TV. To put this into perspective, the entire database on Wikipedia is estimated to have taken just 100 million hours to complete. This means that this country spends a Wikipedia’s worth of time every weekend, just watching ads! It’s a massive amount of untapped potential, which Clay Shirky explains in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, is a trend starting to take a turn for the better.
Thanks to the Internet, individuals all around the world have more productive ways to spend free time. Instead of sitting on the couch mindlessly watching sitcoms, individuals can engage with others in online communities, collaborate on open sourced projects, and contribute to knowledge platforms like Wikipedia and Quora. It’s sparked a renaissance of ideation and created opportunities not dreamed of just a few decades ago. The cognitive surplus formerly contained to passive consumption is now being utilized for projects and philanthropic good, and the result is an explosion of innovation and collaboration that’s driving the world forward.
During a recent lecture at Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, Shirky talked about the emergence of global interconnectedness and its effects on business, culture and human rights. Individuals are now able to transcend their immediate environment to work with people around the world based on shared interests and ideals. It’s led to platforms like Ushahidi, which collects, aggregates, and mines data about inhumane and corrupt political events; and Linux, the operating system developed under the model of free and open source software distribution. Platforms that constrain themselves to people “in house’ are missing out, as Sun Microsystem co-counder Bill Joy famously remarked: “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”
Shirky explains that we need to start building our institutions with these dynamics in mind. No longer should we be engineering for robustness, he says, as there is too much variance within the participants. Rather, we should engineer around resilience; vis-a-vis Wikipedia, where the number of malcontents is outnumbered by the number of people who truly care about the integrity of the movement. When systems are built as such, Shirky says we move from a culture of “failure is not an option” to a culture of “failure is not a problem.” In the open, transparent age of the Internet, the ability to adapt and feed off of the wisdom of the crowd is the winning strategy.
Check out Shirky explain these ideas and others during his lecture at Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program below:
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