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TED@Cannes

Clay Shirky: How cognitive surplus will change the world

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Clay Shirky looks at "cognitive surplus" -- the shared, online work we do with our spare brain cycles. While we're busy editing Wikipedia, posting to Ushahidi (and yes, making LOLcats), we're building a better, more cooperative world.

- Social Media Theorist
Clay Shirky argues that the history of the modern world could be rendered as the history of ways of arguing, where changes in media change what sort of arguments are possible -- with deep social and political implications. Full bio

The story starts in Kenya
00:16
in December of 2007,
00:18
when there was a disputed presidential election,
00:20
and in the immediate aftermath of that election,
00:22
there was an outbreak of ethnic violence.
00:25
And there was a lawyer in Nairobi, Ory Okolloh --
00:27
who some of you may know from her TEDTalk --
00:30
who began blogging about it on her site,
00:32
Kenyan Pundit.
00:34
And shortly after the election and the outbreak of violence,
00:36
the government suddenly imposed
00:39
a significant media blackout.
00:41
And so weblogs went from being
00:43
commentary as part of the media landscape
00:45
to being a critical part of the media landscape
00:47
in trying to understand where the violence was.
00:50
And Okolloh solicited
00:53
from her commenters
00:55
more information about what was going on.
00:57
The comments began pouring in,
00:59
and Okolloh would collate them. She would post them.
01:01
And she quickly said, "It's too much.
01:03
I could do this all day every day
01:05
and I can't keep up.
01:07
There is more information
01:09
about what's going on in Kenya right now
01:11
than any one person can manage.
01:13
If only there was a way to automate this."
01:15
And two programmers who read her blog
01:17
held their hands up and said, "We could do that,"
01:19
and in 72 hours, they launched Ushahidi.
01:22
Ushahidi -- the name means "witness"
01:25
or "testimony" in Swahili --
01:27
is a very simple way of taking reports from the field,
01:29
whether it's from the web or, critically,
01:32
via mobile phones and SMS,
01:35
aggregating it and putting it on a map.
01:37
That's all it is, but that's all that's needed
01:40
because what it does is it takes the tacit information
01:42
available to the whole population --
01:45
everybody knows where the violence is,
01:47
but no one person knows what everyone knows --
01:49
and it takes that tacit information
01:52
and it aggregates it,
01:54
and it maps it and it makes it public.
01:56
And that, that maneuver
01:58
called "crisis mapping,"
02:00
was kicked off in Kenya
02:02
in January of 2008.
02:05
And enough people looked at it and found it valuable enough
02:07
that the programmers who created Ushahidi
02:10
decided they were going to make it open source
02:12
and turn it into a platform.
02:14
It's since been deployed in Mexico
02:16
to track electoral fraud.
02:18
It's been deployed in Washington D.C. to track snow cleanup.
02:20
And it's been used most famously in Haiti
02:23
in the aftermath of the earthquake.
02:25
And when you look at the map
02:28
now posted on the Ushahidi front page,
02:30
you can see that the number of deployments in Ushahidi
02:32
has gone worldwide, all right?
02:34
This went from a single idea
02:37
and a single implementation
02:39
in East Africa in the beginning of 2008
02:41
to a global deployment
02:44
in less than three years.
02:46
Now what Okolloh did
02:49
would not have been possible
02:52
without digital technology.
02:54
What Okolloh did would not have been possible
02:57
without human generosity.
03:00
And the interesting moment now,
03:02
the number of environments
03:04
where the social design challenge
03:06
relies on both of those things being true.
03:08
That is the resource that I'm talking about.
03:11
I call it cognitive surplus.
03:14
And it represents the ability
03:16
of the world's population
03:18
to volunteer and to contribute and collaborate
03:20
on large, sometimes global, projects.
03:23
Cognitive surplus is made up of two things.
03:26
The first, obviously, is the world's free time and talents.
03:28
The world has over
03:31
a trillion hours a year
03:33
of free time
03:36
to commit to shared projects.
03:38
Now, that free time existed in the 20th century,
03:40
but we didn't get Ushahidi in the 20th century.
03:42
That's the second half of cognitive surplus.
03:45
The media landscape in the 20th century
03:47
was very good at helping people consume,
03:49
and we got, as a result,
03:52
very good at consuming.
03:54
But now that we've been given media tools --
03:56
the Internet, mobile phones -- that let us do more than consume,
03:58
what we're seeing is that people weren't couch potatoes
04:01
because we liked to be.
04:04
We were couch potatoes because that was
04:06
the only opportunity given to us.
04:08
We still like to consume, of course.
04:10
But it turns out we also like to create,
04:12
and we like to share.
04:14
And it's those two things together --
04:17
ancient human motivation
04:19
and the modern tools to allow that motivation
04:21
to be joined up in large-scale efforts --
04:23
that are the new design resource.
04:26
And using cognitive surplus,
04:29
we're starting to see truly incredible experiments
04:31
in scientific, literary,
04:34
artistic, political efforts.
04:36
Designing.
04:39
We're also getting, of course, a lot of LOLcats.
04:41
LOLcats are cute pictures of cats
04:44
made cuter with the addition of cute captions.
04:46
And they are also
04:49
part of the abundant media landscape we're getting now.
04:51
This is one of the participatory --
04:54
one of the participatory models
04:56
we see coming out of that, along with Ushahidi.
04:58
Now I want to stipulate, as the lawyers say,
05:01
that LOLcats are the stupidest possible
05:03
creative act.
05:05
There are other candidates of course,
05:07
but LOLcats will do as a general case.
05:09
But here's the thing:
05:12
The stupidest possible creative act
05:14
is still a creative act.
05:16
Someone who has done something like this,
05:19
however mediocre and throwaway,
05:22
has tried something, has put something forward in public.
05:25
And once they've done it, they can do it again,
05:28
and they could work on getting it better.
05:31
There is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work,
05:33
and as anybody who's worked as an artist or a creator knows,
05:36
it's a spectrum you're constantly
05:39
struggling to get on top of.
05:41
The gap is between
05:43
doing anything and doing nothing.
05:45
And someone who makes a LOLcat
05:48
has already crossed over that gap.
05:50
Now it's tempting to want to get the Ushahidis
05:53
without the LOLcats, right,
05:55
to get the serious stuff without the throwaway stuff.
05:57
But media abundance never works that way.
06:00
Freedom to experiment means freedom to experiment with anything.
06:03
Even with the sacred printing press,
06:06
we got erotic novels 150 years
06:08
before we got scientific journals.
06:10
So before I talk about
06:14
what is, I think, the critical difference
06:17
between LOLcats and Ushahidi,
06:19
I want to talk about
06:21
their shared source.
06:23
And that source is design for generosity.
06:25
It is one of the curiosities of our historical era
06:28
that even as cognitive surplus
06:31
is becoming a resource we can design around,
06:33
social sciences are also starting to explain
06:35
how important
06:38
our intrinsic motivations are to us,
06:40
how much we do things because we like to do them
06:42
rather than because our boss told us to do them,
06:45
or because we're being paid to do them.
06:47
This is a graph from a paper
06:50
by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini,
06:53
who set out to test, at the beginning of this decade,
06:55
what they called "deterrence theory."
06:58
And deterrence theory is a very simple theory of human behavior:
07:00
If you want somebody to do less of something,
07:02
add a punishment and they'll do less of it.
07:04
Simple, straightforward, commonsensical --
07:06
also, largely untested.
07:09
And so they went and studied
07:11
10 daycare centers in Haifa, Israel.
07:13
They studied those daycare centers
07:15
at the time of highest tension,
07:17
which is pick-up time.
07:19
At pick-up time the teachers,
07:21
who have been with your children all day,
07:23
would like you to be there at the appointed hour to take your children back.
07:25
Meanwhile, the parents -- perhaps a little busy at work, running late, running errands --
07:28
want a little slack to pick the kids up late.
07:31
So Gneezy and Rustichini said,
07:34
"How many instances of late pick-ups
07:36
are there at these 10 daycare centers?"
07:38
Now they saw -- and this is what the graph is,
07:40
these are the number of weeks and these are the number of late arrivals --
07:42
that there were between six and 10
07:45
instances of late pick-ups
07:47
on average in these 10 daycare centers.
07:49
So they divided the daycare centers into two groups.
07:51
The white group there
07:54
is the control group; they change nothing.
07:56
But the group of daycare centers represented by the black line,
07:59
they said, "We are changing this bargain
08:02
as of right now.
08:04
If you pick your kid up more than 10 minutes late,
08:06
we're going to add a 10 shekel fine to your bill.
08:08
Boom. No ifs, ands or buts."
08:10
And the minute they did that,
08:13
the behavior in those daycare centers changed.
08:15
Late pick-ups went up
08:17
every week for the next four weeks
08:19
until they topped out at triple the pre-fine average,
08:22
and then they fluctuated
08:25
at between double and triple the pre-fine average
08:27
for the life of the fine.
08:29
And you can see immediately what happened, right?
08:31
The fine broke the culture
08:35
of the daycare center.
08:37
By adding a fine,
08:39
what they did was communicate to the parents
08:41
that their entire debt to the teachers
08:43
had been discharged
08:45
with the payment of 10 shekels,
08:47
and that there was no residue of guilt or social concern
08:49
that the parents owed the teachers.
08:52
And so the parents, quite sensibly, said,
08:54
"10 shekels to pick my kid up late?
08:56
What could be bad?"
08:58
(Laughter)
09:00
The explanation of human behavior
09:04
that we inherited in the 20th century
09:06
was that we are all rational, self-maximizing actors,
09:09
and in that explanation --
09:12
the daycare center had no contract --
09:14
should have been operating without any constraints.
09:17
But that's not right.
09:20
They were operating with social constraints
09:22
rather than contractual ones.
09:24
And critically, the social constraints
09:26
created a culture that was more generous
09:28
than the contractual constraints did.
09:31
So Gneezy and Rustichini run this experiment for a dozen weeks --
09:33
run the fine for a dozen weeks --
09:36
and then they say, "Okay, that's it. All done; fine."
09:38
And then a really interesting thing happens:
09:41
Nothing changes.
09:43
The culture that got broken by the fine
09:46
stayed broken when the fine was removed.
09:49
Not only are economic motivations
09:52
and intrinsic motivations
09:55
incompatible,
09:57
that incompatibility
09:59
can persist over long periods.
10:01
So the trick
10:04
in designing these kinds of situations
10:06
is to understand where you're relying on
10:08
the economic part of the bargain -- as with the parents paying the teachers --
10:11
and when you're relying on the social part of the bargain,
10:14
when you're really designing for generosity.
10:17
This brings me back to the LOLcats
10:20
and to Ushahidi.
10:23
This is, I think, the range that matters.
10:25
Both of these rely on cognitive surplus.
10:27
Both of these design for the assumption
10:29
that people like to create and we want to share.
10:31
Here is the critical difference between these:
10:34
LOLcats is communal value.
10:39
It's value created by the participants
10:42
for each other.
10:44
Communal value on the networks we have
10:46
is everywhere --
10:49
every time you see a large aggregate
10:51
of shared, publicly available data,
10:53
whether it's photos on Flickr
10:56
or videos on Youtube or whatever.
10:58
This is good. I like LOLcats as much as the next guy,
11:00
maybe a little more even,
11:02
but this is also
11:04
a largely solved problem.
11:07
I have a hard time envisioning a future
11:09
in which someone is saying,
11:11
"Where, oh where, can I find a picture
11:13
of a cute cat?"
11:15
Ushahidi, by contrast,
11:17
is civic value.
11:19
It's value created by the participants
11:21
but enjoyed by society as a whole.
11:23
The goals set out by Ushahidi
11:25
are not just to make life better
11:27
for the participants,
11:29
but to make life better for everyone in the society
11:31
in which Ushahidi is operating.
11:34
And that kind of civic value
11:36
is not just a side effect
11:39
of opening up to human motivation.
11:41
It really is going to be a side effect
11:44
of what we, collectively,
11:46
make of these kinds of efforts.
11:48
There are a trillion
11:51
hours a year
11:53
of participatory value
11:55
up for grabs.
11:57
That will be true year-in and year-out.
11:59
The number of people who are going to be able
12:02
to participate in these kinds of projects
12:04
is going to grow,
12:06
and we can see that organizations
12:08
designed around a culture of generosity
12:11
can achieve incredible effects
12:13
without an enormous amount of contractual overhead --
12:15
a very different model
12:18
than our default model for large-scale group action in the 20th century.
12:20
What's going to make the difference here
12:24
is what Dean Kamen said,
12:27
the inventor and entrepreneur.
12:30
Kamen said, "Free cultures get what they celebrate."
12:32
We've got a choice before us.
12:36
We've got this trillion hours a year.
12:39
We can use it to crack each other up, and we're going to do that.
12:41
That, we get for free.
12:44
But we can also celebrate
12:46
and support and reward the people
12:48
trying to use cognitive surplus
12:50
to create civic value.
12:52
And to the degree we're going to do that, to the degree we're able to do that,
12:54
we'll be able to change society.
12:57
Thank you very much.
12:59

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About the Speaker:

Clay Shirky - Social Media Theorist
Clay Shirky argues that the history of the modern world could be rendered as the history of ways of arguing, where changes in media change what sort of arguments are possible -- with deep social and political implications.

Why you should listen

Clay Shirky's work focuses on the rising usefulness of networks -- using decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer sharing, wireless, software for social creation, and open-source development. New technologies are enabling new kinds of cooperative structures to flourish as a way of getting things done in business, science, the arts and elsewhere, as an alternative to centralized and institutional structures, which he sees as self-limiting. In his writings and speeches he has argued that "a group is its own worst enemy."

Shirky is an adjunct professor in New York Universityʼs graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he teaches a course named “Social Weather.” Heʼs the author of several books. This spring at the TED headquarters in New York, he gave an impassioned talk against SOPA/PIPA that saw 1 million views in 48 hours.

More profile about the speaker
Clay Shirky | Speaker | TED.com