Friday, May 16, 2008

The Cognitive Surplus and the Idiot Box

If I could get all the hours back that I wasted watching Hogan's Heroes as a kid, I could use that time to go to medical school. Twice. And walk/swim around the earth eleven times.

Regular visitors will know that I consider TV the anti-book. And it is. So it was with much interest that I read a truly hilarious column by Mark Morford on the San Francisco Chronicle's website. In it, he discusses getting sucked in by the tube in relation to NYU professor Clay Shirky's notion of the "cognitive surplus," which he defines as all that leftover brain power we are blessed with, but collectively fritter away drooling in front of the idiot box. You can read Mr. Morford's funny column here.

Shirky calculates that Americans, as a whole, spend about 200 billion hours a year in front of the tube (see above reference to frittering). The number is mind boggling. But, he argues, the web is starting to eek out a tiny sliver of this time, and he thinks that this still-nascent technology will soon unleash a new, participatory revolution that will change the course of mankind and the conceit of "free time." We'll see. But it's a cool idea: those billions of hours of "passive" time will slowly evolve into more active, participatory, brain-activated time. You can watch a fascinating 15-minute video of Mr. Shirky discussing the "cognitive surplus" here.

(I should note that Mr. Shirky seems quite a bit more sanguine about the future of the web and its prospects for the human race than does Mr. Bauerlein, whose book, The Dumbest Generation, I discussed in the previous post.)

Oh, I also read an interesting, but, I believe, somewhat overly optimistic, article on Newsweek's site about the explosion in YA (Young Adult) novels. My beef with the story was the lack of numbers/facts/statistics. Although this category of book has certainly seen an uptick, the numbers I've seen indicate that overall teen reading is going nowhere but south. Could it be that a small pool of avid-reading kids are just reading more? Hmmm. Either way, I was bolstered by the mere idea that reading may be considered a vital part of "hip" youth culture. You can read it here.