Spending your cognitive surplus


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Internet matters

One book I have been meaning to read is Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

Apparently, Shirky argues that rising affluence in society has left people with leisure time that has often been misused on fundamentally unproductive tasks like watching television. Now, we have better opportunities to use our down time for something more meaningful, such as contributing to public understanding and discussion on important issues. New forms of collaboration, particularly the internet, make it easier than ever to coordinate with like-minded people around the world.

How do readers of this site spend their cognitive surpluses?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Padraic January 24, 2011 at 1:33 pm

In law school, there are a suite of extra-curricular/co-curricular activities designed to capture (or prevent the emergence of) cognitive surplus: reading submitted articles for law review, defending clients at our pro bono legal clinic, competing in mock cases, and so on. I wonder what I will replace these activities with once I leave student life behind.

I am a also a longtime editor of Wikipedia, which is Shirky’s paradigmatic example.

Milan January 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm

If you don’t mind sharing, what’s your Wikipedia username?

R.K. January 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Nice photo

oleh January 25, 2011 at 2:30 am

I will cite three activities.

Three years ago I joined a book club. It is an all-male book club. It has existed for 13 years and read about 140 books. It meets 11 times a year and I join in about 8 or 9. It focusses on fiction and in particular contemporary novels. Once a year, the session is devoted to poetry a favourite meeting held outside in July in a beautiful garden.

I find it is a push for me. Intellectually I look to contribute at meetings where the average attendee is much more well read than I. I also find it gives me a focus. I read beginning the Saturday 10 days before the meeting and generally read steadily about an hour a day through that period.

This month I also joined a choir. That is also a challenge for me as I am called upon to read music for singing for the first time in my life. The choir sings in four parts, although the baritone role I sing tends to be the easiest. With only about 12 members, one cannot hide easily so you have to put out. However, coming out with a common harmonized sound is worth it.

Finally I enjoy watching night court in Vancouver Provincial Court house on Wednesday evenings. Theses cases are only one hour. I do not have the benefit of the trial statements or documents ahead of time. I can’t help but think to myself how I would decide in each case.

I restricted my list to elements that have a strong cognitive component. Overall I enjoy being outside the most – cycling , hiking , refereeing soccer, but I see this as more physical than cognitive (with the possible exception of refereeing soccer).

oleh January 25, 2011 at 2:36 am

One more – checking this blog and following and occasionally participating in the discussion.

Tristan January 26, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I’m going to spend some of mine entering this contest (write a 500 word essays on the “ethics” of the tar sands, 1st prize is an Ipad) – and I encourage readers of this site to do the same:


Milan January 27, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Here’s a quick entry I whipped up:

Minister Kent,

I can understand why you think oil produced from the Athabasca oil sands is more ‘ethical’ than oil produced by undemocratic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. When people buy fuels for heating, transport, and other purposes, it does seem more desirable that the profits should flow to citizens and governments of a democratic country with respect for human rights.

What this analysis ignores is the environmental impact of the oil sands and the importance of climate change. Buried underground is an enormous quantity of carbon embedded in coal, oil, and gas. Whenever those fuels are dug up and burned, that carbon gets added to the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. Humanity has already contributed a dangerous amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and if we continue on the present course we are likely to warm the planet by more than 5˚C by 2100, with devastating consequences.

The only way to avoid that outcome is to leave most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground. Not only does digging them up and burning them contribute directly and inevitably to climate change, but the development of unconventional fossil fuel reserves like the oil sands perpetuates the dependency of the global economy on fossil fuels. We need to break that cycle of dependence, and shift the energy basis of the global economy to renewable forms of energy that do not alter the climate. The Government of Canada has endorsed the idea that allowing the planet to warm by more than 2˚C would be ‘dangerous’ and yet the concrete actions taken by the government so far have served to encourage even more significant warming than that.

Much of the greenhouse gas pollution we add to the atmosphere today will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, impacting the lives of all the human beings who will live in that span. By comparison, only a few generations will directly benefit from the unsustainable bonanza that could temporarily accompany the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels. It would be wrong for those of us alive today to harm and imperil those in future generations, just to gain a temporary and unsustainable measure of wealth. Rather, we should set the stage for long-term human welfare and prosperity by moving aggressively to the use of zero-carbon, renewable forms of energy.

At the very least, Canada ought to end the situation where private companies can use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for their pollution. By putting an economy-wide price on carbon, the Government of Canada can encourage reductions in greenhouse gas pollution in the most cost-effective ways, while helping to drive the development and deployment of the low- and eventually zero-carbon energy sources that are the true basis for future Canadian prosperity.

Thank you,

Milan Ilnyckyj

It might not be the most compelling piece of writing, but I think it makes the key points.

Tristan January 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Did you submit it?

Milan January 27, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Yes. I am working on a more comprehensive letter to the new minister, also.

Milan January 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm

This is really interesting, with lots of good stuff about political activism:

Clay Shirky on Cognitive Surplus

Milan January 24, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Incidentally, my current life situation seems designed to burn up cognitive surplus.

I wake up hours before I would naturally want to, and get bundled on to an overcrowded lurching transit system that makes me angry and frustrated. My official work is largely disconnected (or even opposed to) what I actually think is important and worth applying my skills to. And then I have another transit trek followed by exhaustion, with weekends devoted to recovering partially from the draining week.

If I am going to do anything useful, I need to change my life quite a bit.

Padraic January 25, 2012 at 8:26 am

1. Per your question above, which I just noticed now – my Wikipedia user name is simply “Padraic”.

2. You really find the subway that demoralizing?

Milan January 25, 2012 at 9:01 am

Not the subway – the streetcar. People are so nasty to each other. There is no pretense of politeness or caring about one another. People have been put into a situation that is unpleasant enough to strip away their compassion.

Paradoxically, the main reason the situation is so unpleasant is precisely because people feel license to be so awful to each other.

Milan January 25, 2012 at 9:01 am

That is, people create the atmosphere that justifies the behaviour that creates the atmosphere.

Milan January 25, 2012 at 9:09 am

Some of that may just be me externalizing my feelings and interpreting the behaviour of others through them.

I really hate early mornings. I hate being in excessively crowded spaces. And I hate repetitive lurching movements. As such, streetcars at rush hour put me in one of my worst possible states of mind.

Also, I am going through all this to get to a place where I don’t want to go, to do work that is largely useless and a distraction from more important things I could be doing.

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