Cognitive Surplus – Chapter 1

Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus

Are the LOLcats the savior of our collective consciousness? Maybe not, but they’re close…

I wasn’t sure what to think when I started this book, other than the fact that I hoped it was good, seeing as how Barnes & Noble took so long to get it to me. What I’ve found so far is that I really like how insightful Clay Shirky is.

This chapter begins by discussing how we as a species tend to over-consume as a by-product to times of stress. In the early 1800’s, the population explosion in London was so pronounced, and the overall stress of the time was so high, that gin became the release of the masses. From the hard working blue collar on the corner up to high society. Being in such a gross population boom, society didn’t know what to do with itself and compensated with an over-indulgence in cheap, easy to acquire, gin. Fast forward 150 years, and we reach another milestone. A television in every home. Unlike radio where you could continue on with what you were doing while listening, the TV requires your undivided attention to consume it. You have to watch or you’ll miss something. For 50+ years we’ve been glued to the boob tube, avidly consuming, because “the man” has managed to convince us that we need to. We have to. “Must-see-TV”. Prime Time. Entire corporations built around how many viewers you’ve got. The sheer amount of time that we, as a species, spends glued to the TV set is astounding. This “free” time, is being consumed, and has begun to cost us. What Shirky proposes is that we take back some of that time, to the tune of billions of hours collectively, and use it. That time, a cognitive surplus, would be to change media, to make us creators instead of just consumers.

How are we to do that? We already are, according to Shirky. The bottom of the creative barrel? Lolcats. The friendly, wonderful, fuzzy, opinionated hairballs at Because of how we participate with LOLcats, creating instead of just consuming, rather than the LOLcats being the ugly stepsister of the Cartoon Network, the Cartoon Network becomes the ugly stepsister of the LOLcats. How did these vacuous felines become better than broadcast television, drawn by talented cartoonists, voice acted by fantastic actors? Because we as a people are creating, sharing, and building it ourselves. LOLcats, Shirky says, instill a feeling of “I can do that too”. So now we don’t just have to sit and watch what someone else has created. We get to go and make our own. In the space of about 2 minutes, you too can go and choose a picture, insert a pithy phrase, misspelled or not, save it, and POOF, you’ve become a part of the creative flow of the internet. Now go to your FaceBook and share it to all your friends. POOF, now you’ve become a part of Web 2.0, where your friends can share it, and their friends, and their friends, and somewhere down the line, you’re going to see your picture come back, shared by someone you’ve never heard of, with thousands of “likes”. Wow.

Personally, I stopped watching TV years ago. It was kind of a gradual thing over a period of years. It became something more permanent when I read a poll that said that most Americans cared more about voting on American Idol than they did for who they wanted to be President. Then I just walked away. If I were to break it down into a timeline it would probably look something like this:

1995: Didn’t have cable, and local television sucked. Watched movies on tape.

1996: Moved to Germany. Only had access to German MTV. Watched rented movies sometimes.

1997: Moved back to the US. Didn’t have a TV to call my own. Didn’t really miss it.

1998: Got a TV again. Really only watched movie channels if I watched at all.

1999: Got a WebTV. Vacillated between watching tapes or surfing the limited internet.

2000: Moved back to Germany. Had a TV, but only Germany MTV. Watched tapes and DVD rarely.

2001: Still in Germany. Cable is shut off by landlord. DVDs sometimes.

2002: Got a computer. Watched a DVD once in a blue moon.

2003: Still on the computer. DVDs on a portable player near the computer. Sometimes.

2004: Moved back to the states. No TV in my room. Sister is an avid TV watcher. I find that commercials leave a very bitter taste in my mouth and start avoiding broadcast TV. 2004 election and the massive amount of mudslinging in the campaigns cements the dislike. I stop watching broadcast TV entirely.

Fast-forward to now. I watch 3 shows. All of which are DVR’ed. All of which I fast-forward through commercials. Most of the time, I forget to watch them until weeks later, and then have to play catch up. I watch a DVD once in a blue moon, and I play on my computer, or read, or do homework, or attempt to sleep. I don’t miss TV. I haven’t for a very long time. Honestly, I have better things to do with my time. I occasionally will post in an online forum for World of Warcraft (also known as WoW), but generally, I spend most of my time online for school. When I don’t have school, I will either play WoW, spend time with my girlfriend, or do something else constructive. I used to think I didn’t have time for hobbies. Now I find that I can make things in the space of a few days, and I feel better for it. I may post a picture on FaceBook occasionally about it.

Maybe you’ll see it someday.

And like it.

And share it.

And maybe one day I’ll see it in my news stream.


No LOLcats were harmed in the creation of this image.


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