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Cognitive Surplus - Considering the odds of survival for homo sapiens technicus [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Brent Eubanks

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Cognitive Surplus [Jun. 23rd, 2008|05:12 pm]
Brent Eubanks
This is a kind of neat article that posits that post-WWII western society has been subject to an enormous "cognitive surplus" as a result of all the labor saving innovations that have come about in the last half century, that we've mostly spent it watching TV, and that this surplus has just recently started to become available for other projects. He points out that the total time investment in building Wikipedia (~100 million man hours) is 0.05% of the United State's TV watching budget, and asks what will happen as more of that currently lost time is directed to other purposes.

I think the essay makes an interesting point, and I think that there is some validity to it. On the other hand, the author implies that time spent watching TV can (and ultimately will) be turned to other purposes, and I don't necessarily think that this is so. Modern life leaves the average person with a lot of free time, but it also imposes a great deal of stress, much of it highly artificial and hard for us monkeys to deal with. It's one thing to come home at the end of a long day and flip on the TV. It's quite another to come home and do something useful. What I'm saying is that it is true, that modern humans have potentially quite a lot of unscheduled time. But that that surplus time does not necessarily equate to a surplus of cognitive capability or motivation.

[User Picture]From: ouraboros
2008-06-24 12:56 am (UTC)
I don't know that I buy the argument of this article.

The Industrial Revolution may have liberated a lot of cognitive focus from chores, but recall that most jobs in the past that took 24/7 were not nearly as complex or demanding as modern jobs. I submit that we suffer in fact from attenuation of overstimulation reflexes, sort of the opposite of what is described, where we are constantly assailed from all directions for demands on our precious fixed *attention span*, not time. In the past, there were simply fewer external distractions, hence a wandering minstrel/mobile circus became a huge event that everyone looked forward to. People travelled less, in general, and the were more intimately familiar with their own social microcosm with a very sharp fall off in their ability to track events outside their own little worldview droplet.

Now I can pick and choose what kind of information I want to know, how much depth I want, which relationships to cultivate/abandon, etc. There's an overhead cost to making those choices that does not appear in the article's accounting of mental space. I posit that this overhead cost of having to constantly make choices about *what* to pay attention to is hidden, and has been increasing in the time frame the article discusses.

We may have more unscheduled time, but we also have a lot more unscheduled *distractions* than ever before (think IM, or LJ). And having to say "no" all the time is more tiring than not having anything to choose at all. I posit geniuses arise from their ability to say "no" to anything that that might distract them:

"When you're young, you have all these things to worry about -- should
you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but
then something else comes up. It's much easier to just plain decide. Never
mind -- nothing is going to change your mind. I did that once when I was a
student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of
dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always
be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again -- I had the
solution to that problem. Anyway, I decided it would always be Caltech."

--_Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!_
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[User Picture]From: riffraff814
2008-06-24 02:12 am (UTC)
Somewhere between being a 'knowledge worker' and sleep, I find myself with the "to-do list that is too long" and the "man, I'm bored, I can't believe I'm watching TV that I've seen before" problem colliding. My best coping mechanisms for hte stress are oddly making things with my hands. Specifically knitting. Yarn Harlot goes into the "working meditation" (analogous to walking meditation from Buddhism) of knitting, and other repetitive hand motions with patterns that make your brain work more smoothly. In her latest book, that is. Her blog is often just about the ravages of travel in support of that book.

I have more to say, but my daughter is insisting that I read a book to her, rather than watch more pbs tv shows. Before bed. I try to encourage that, so I must leave my "post stuff on the internets" for now.
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