OPW

OPW: Reallocating Social Surplus

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, has some very interesting ideas about how the internet’s changing society and why. So on today’s “Other People’s Words,” a selection from a recent speech he gave on the topic. Video of the speech is available, as is the full transcript.

He begins by describing the role gin played in allowing the industrial revolution, and the role sitcoms played from about 1950 onward in keeping people with new-found free time busy.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we’re still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity.

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you’re going. That’s the phase we’re in now.

Just to pick one example, one I’m in love with, but it’s tiny. A couple of weeks one of my students at ITP forwarded me a a project started by a professor in Brazil, in Fortaleza, named Vasco Furtado. It’s a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there’s an assault, if there’s a burglary, if there’s a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring.

Now, this already exists as tacit information. Anybody who knows a town has some sense of, “Don’t go there. That street corner is dangerous. Don’t go in this neighborhood. Be careful there after dark.” But it’s something society knows without society really knowing it, which is to say there’s no public source where you can take advantage of it. And the cops, if they have that information, they’re certainly not sharing. In fact, one of the things Furtado says in starting the Wiki crime map was, “This information may or may not exist some place in society, but it’s actually easier for me to try to rebuild it from scratch than to try and get it from the authorities who might have it now.”

Maybe this will succeed or maybe it will fail. The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don’t pan out. But the ones that do are quite incredible, and I hope that this one succeeds, obviously. But even if it doesn’t, it’s illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn’t have imagined existing even five years ago.

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