Cognitive calculus


in Internet matters, Writing

Speaking with Lindi tonight, I was reminded of an idea that I wanted to briefly describe. Basically, it’s that it can be useful to think about self-expression in terms of time ratios. That is to say, the ratio between the amount of time it takes for someone to take in your thoughts, as a function of how useful they find those thoughts to be.

If, in a seminar of fifteen, you can make a comment that takes one minute, the effective cost to the group is fifteen minutes. As such, it had better be worth at least fifteen minutes of thinking time, based on the value of thinking time for members of that group. A comment that nobody would have come up with on their own is especially valuable precisely because it represents such an efficient use of time.

Something similar is true of blogging. If I can spend an hour to produce something that is worth two minutes to thirty people, I will have at least broken even. In practice, I will probably have done better because I will have achieved other objectives: most notably the clarification of my own thought.

The value of the time ratio idea is primarily in helping you to avoid exposing people to pointless or irrelevant information. The self-selection involved in reading or not reading a blog is somewhat liberating in that capacity (compared to a seminar comment you have little choice but to listen to), but I should still aim to maintain a net cognitive surplus.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

B March 17, 2006 at 12:43 pm

This is an unnecessarily mathematical way to look at it: typical of someone who has studied economics.

Ben March 17, 2006 at 4:26 pm

An interesting approach, and very altruistic of you too to give up an hour to save 30 of us 2 minutes. I suppose reciprocation would lead to mutual advantage, but of course we can’t know how long it’d take me to think of your point or whether that’s what I’ve been thinking about… I prefer to think of things as an exchange of different viewpoints. After all, no matter how long I spent thinking, I doubt I’d ever know what you did today without hearing from you!

Anonymous March 17, 2006 at 6:13 pm

Ben’s right. Such calculations make no sense when it comes to ideas nobody else would have had.

You’re equivocating here between the time people actually invest reading or listening, and the amount of time it would take to produce equivalent thoughts.

As a promise to keep writing interesting stuff, this statement is better expressed through actually doing so.

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