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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.

Clay Shirky thinks deeply about how you spend time on the Internet.

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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2 comments

  • turtles_allthewaydown says:

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. When I get home from work, I don’t generally watch sitcoms (or reality TV), but I’m done with major thinking. I want to relax, play a game perhaps, or do some yardwork. My wife wants to tell me about her day. I might make a wikipedia contribution, but that’s rare. I’m more likely to put some pictures on my webpage or check facebook, but don’t count on me for contributing to open-source software projects or other general enlightenment. Sitcoms or not, it’s not likely to happen.

  • wildzbill says:

    This is very much like the talk given by Jane McGonigal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dE1DuBesGYM
    The approach is different, she talks about making everything more like a game so that people enjoy it and get slightly addicted, which is extrinsic motivation. He talks about a few people doing it from intrinsic motivation, because of things like autonomy, competence, membership and generosity (altruism).
    I would think that the best path would be a mixture of the two types of motivation. With a wonderful goal, you might be able to build a core of intrinsically motivated people. As part of the strategy, the team would gamify the project, making it interesting to a larger audience. You find ways to quantify contributions for points and create levels and categories.

    I am of the view that we are headed towards an era of less work, especially of the type that the majority of people do now. We will need to utilize ever more vast amounts of untrained help from a growing pool of people on the internet. The numbers of available hours will grow exponentially like everything else. I think we are quite a ways up that curve.

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