Throughout the semester, we have had a common link from one week to the next: the power of numbers and networking. From the first few weeks, when we discussed the telegraph, the television and the development of the Internet, the impact technology has had on how people effectively communicate and share knowledge has been the underlying theme.
As often happens with inventions, there have been many uses of the Internet that were not intended by the inventors. The NSA began spying, hackers are stealing information, cyber-attacks becoming more of a threat than physical war and, then, social media has taken over our method of communication with one another, especially our youth. We have become heavily reliant on the Internet and, in doing so, have left ourselves vulnerable. A yin and yang, good and bad.
Marshall McLuhan, with his Theory of Technological Determinism, describes how these technologies have affected our interaction with one another, that as we develop these tools, the tools also develop and shape us. Although he did not live to see the dawning of this new age (the Internet Revolution), his theory can easily be applied to what we are seeing occur, as far as how we socialize.
However, of all the innovations we discussed, television has been the one that Clay Shirky really “picked on”. Where the telegraph (telephone) and the Internet encourage two-way communication, the television was designed for people to sit back, staring blankly at a screen, absorbing information with no feedback opportunity. Essentially, making us watchers of the “boob tube”.
According to Shirky, television has “absorbed the lion’s share of the free time available to citizens of the developed world.”. In the United States alone, it is estimated that we collectively watch approximately 200 billion hours of TV per year. However, the shift that is currently happening is more people are turning the television off, and the time they spend on the Internet is increasing.
With only so much free time in our days, our cognitive surplus, Shirky believes we should be using this time to be proactive in society. He estimates that Wikipedia took around 100 million hours of collective editing to create. With the amount of television we watch, in the US alone, that would create 2,000 Wikipedia sites. Using our free time to improve society is most certainly an admirable goal, so long as people are spending this excess time in positive ways.
The example of LOLcats might be seen as a waste of time to some, but it is harmless entertainment and displays the creativity that we realize when so many people come together to collectively work on a project.
There are so many examples, however, of this collaboration leading to negative effects: the collective communities that are sharing hacking secrets, encouraging hate crimes and terrorist activities. There is also the issue of reliability with sites, such as Wikipedia. For instance, did you know that the U.S. Men’s Soccer goalie, Tim Howard, was also the U.S. Secretary of Defense? 🙂
The first collective project I thought about, which uses cognitive surplus to create it, is the business review website, Angie’s List. This business was created to combine everyone’s knowledge and opinions, in order to rate and review businesses.
In the past, people had to rely on organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau, to obtain information about the businesses that they dealt with. BBB was able to let people know if the business was a member, and if there were active complaints about the company. However, people typically wouldn’t complain to the BBB that a company had done a “mediocre” job. These average companies could slide by, continuing their average work.
Angie’s List allows members to rate companies on many different aspects of their business transaction. While you may not make a formal complaint to BBB that a contractor was continuously late and took twice as long to complete a job as they initially quoted, Angie’s List is the perfect platform for such a complaint. Not only do consumers obtain more detailed information about the companies, the companies realize quickly they need to step up their game if they want to survive.
I am not a member of Angie’s List, mainly because my husband was a contractor for many years and does the work himself. However, I can see where this would be very helpful to someone that doesn’t have a lot of background information on the work they need done. With so many stories of con artists swindling poor, unsuspecting customers, it is no wonder Angie’s List caught on so quickly.
This also ties into what we have discussed about networking. Just because I don’t have an Angie’s List account, doesn’t mean that I won’t hear about the negative, or positive, comments that are on there. Reputation travels much quicker now. Businesses that don’t operate ethically won’t be around for long.
A project that I would support, using collective cognitive surplus, would be an online tutoring community to help students in impoverished school districts. It would be simple to acquire volunteers, willing to be online to answer questions and explain things. People who were not able to donate their time to these children, due to distant location, would be able to contribute to improving these districts and, as a result, society.
However, as we learned during discussion of the topic “digital divide”, we must first provide these students with the tools they would need to get to this resource, namely a reliable Internet connection. The issue of reliable Internet connection could be solved through a program that provides low-income families with reduced or free Internet service, similar to the program that provides children with free or reduced cost meals at school. Being I have seen several articles and advertisements announcing free cell phone service for low income people, surely this isn’t too much of a stretch.
I admire Shirky’s ideas on cognitive surplus and the difference we can make when we combine our efforts. I agree that we are experiencing a period in time where people are looking beyond what is right in front of their eyes and, instead, participating in advancement and change for the good of society, as a whole.