Category Archives: Social

Pancake People

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

via Richard Foreman via Nicholas Carr
which is interesting and everything but then I came across this quote by Steven Johnson:

But the truth is most of our information tools still have a fuzziness built into them that can, in Richard Foreman’s words, “often open doors to new worlds.” It really depends on how you choose to use the tool. Personally, I have two modes of using Google: one very directed and goal-oriented, the other more open-ended and exploratory. Sometimes I use Google to find a specific fact: an address, the spelling of a name, the number of neurons estimated to reside in the human brain, the dates of the little ice age. In those situations, I’m not looking for mistakes, and thankfully Google’s quite good at avoiding them. But I also use Google in a far more serendipitous way, when I’m exploring an idea or a theme or an author’s work: I’ll start with a general query and probe around a little and see what the oracle turns up; sometimes I’ll follow a trail of links out from the original search; sometimes I’ll return and tweak the terms and start again. Invariably, those explorations take me to places I wasn’t originally expecting to go—and that’s precisely why I cherish them. (I have a similar tool for exploring my own research notes—a program called DevonThink that lets me see semantic associations between the thousands of short notes and quotations that I’ve assembled on my hard drive.)

which I thought was relevant to Clearspace (the word serendipitous comes up more often than you’d think in product conversations) because it shows how search is more than just a directed, singular focus kind of activity that lots of people assume it to be. The first quote is telling too: all the iPhoning, Facebooking, Twittering, Flickring, Clearspacing and Emailing leaves us stretched thin: when was the last time you sat down to read something or write something longer than a single page?

At Least They’re Doing Something

What a great essay / presentation by Clay Shirky. A couple quotes that stood out to me:

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I’ve finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

So that’s the answer to the question, “Where do they find the time?” Or, rather, that’s the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: “Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.” At least they’re doing something.