Cognitive Surplus – Chapter 5


The Haifa day-care experiment was an experiment that sought to change the behaviors of the parents picking up their children. They had an average of about seven or eight late pickups per day care center per week. At six of ten of the centers, they instituted a 10 shekel fine to parents that were late picking up their child. Instead of reducing the number of late pickups, they grew almost exponentially. The average increased to 10, then 14, then 17, then 20. The study ran for 3 months and the average never dropped below 14. Then, three months later, they stopped charging the fine. Instead of reverting back to the pre-fine average, it stayed where it was. The reason Shirky states, is that the parents saw that 10 shekels not as a fine, but as an acceptable charge for the workers time. They stopped seeing the workers with a sense of community, I.e., “I’ll hurry and pick up my children so that you can get home to your family” to a sense of the workers time as a commodity. They could be late, they paid their shekels. And that abuse of the workers continued after the fine was lifted. Their view of the workers had changed and wouldn’t change back.

This behavior is not an isolated incident however. A couple of years ago, Blockbuster instituted a new policy. Fail to return a movie in 5 days and you just bought it. Rather than instill in people a desire to get their videos back on time, people got more lazy. More than once I heard someone say, “oh well, guess I bought it” and not take the DVD back. What they didn’t realize is that they didn’t just have to pay the cost of that DVD, but every day they didn’t take that delinquent video back, they were still accumulating late charges. I have one acquaintance that has a $120 charge on their credit, being pursued by a collection agency, simply because they wouldn’t take back a movie that they just decided to keep after that 5 days. Probably not what Blockbuster intended with that policy. Netflix had a similar problem. They send you a movie, you watch it and send it back and then they send you another one. Same acquaintance just decided to keep a movie they sent her. Didn’t worry about the fact they wouldn’t send her another, just would stream online instead. Rather than use the system as it was intended, she turned the system against itself because she had what she wanted.

On the other hand, a culture of sharing, with no fees instituted, can sometimes be even better than something you have to pay for. I’m part of two such communities on the web, and I think if they’d charged, they wouldn’t be even 1/4 as good as they are. One is the forums at, a community of VW Beetle owners that shares tips and experiences with other Beetle owners so that they can learn from it. The other is a forum called D.I.C. Or Dream.In.Code. It’s a set of forums for programming in every language you could possibly think of. Both are intensely useful, both are free. Both are run by a community of volunteers sharing their knowledge.

But free isn’t always a good thing. Take Shirky’s brain surgeon analogy. Would you want a brain surgeon that learned everything from Wikipedia? Or the Encyclopedia Brittanica? Hell no. You’d want a professional that went to school and is the best at what he does. But by the same token if I’m looking for a new restaurant to try, I don’t necessarily need a professional food critic to tell me the hot dogs at the local gas station are awesome. Professional vs Amateur is going to have to remain a question based on content. You’re not always going to want a professional’s opinion or skill. But sometimes, you do. It just depends on the situation.