22 October 2008

Cognitive Surplus


a screen that ships without a mouse, ships broken...

Watch this video. It is really worth it. It provides an extremely insightful analysis of social evolution and the power of Web 2.0 applications in reconceptualizing mass media to provide opportunities for everybody not only to consume but also produce and share.

Spending four formative years in countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Egypt, where tv was mostly just plain bad and more often than not spoken in a language I could not understand, got me away from tv and into activities like sports and games and just enjoying simpler things. Of course upon returning to the US I watched my fair share of MASH reruns, but I escaped getting hooked to the boobtube like most of my schoolmates.

What puzzles me now is how we feel that we need to turn our brain off in order to shed and get over financial stress or other types of stress caused from having to work too long or too hard in a job that is more often than not quite meaningless. If you want to escape from something too meaningless to bear, then why do something even more meaningless? In this sense tv serves the same purpose as alcohol and other recreative drugs. True, sometimes we identify with Giligan or Samantha or the guy on CSI and we like to feel that we can be like them. However, more often than not, as Mr. Shirky says in the video, we just aren't sure what else to do with our time. This is partly because before Web 2.0 applications like blogs and social networking and podcasting, watching tv (and of course listening to the radio) was basically our only opportunity to be part of popular culture through mass media. For decades this reinforced the messages from tv adds encouraging us to become net consumers.

The cognitive surplus created from becoming such consumers needs to be looked upon as an opportunity. Having enough time to watch trillions of hours of tv while our social and spiritual fabric comes undone at the seems provides us with one of the greatest opportunities available to humanity at present. Mr. Shirky would have us believe that it is better to do something, anything, as long as it implies being an active participant and not a passive consumer. As insightful as this talk is, I just can't agree that we need to set the bar of expectation so low because doing just anything won't get us very far from our tv set.

This concept elevated to principle in the video arises from a misunderstanding of the potentiality of human capacity.

"Man is called today to the attainment of that station to which he was destined from the 'Beginning which has no beginning.' This, then, is why 'Abdu'l-Bahá so exalted the station of Servitude. This is why He intimated that man accepting any station lower than this, any putting of self before service to others, qualifies himself as of the animal, the bestial nature, and places himself outside the pale of real manhood. It is because the definition of Man is altered. That which has been hinted in the past as a possible goal is now a requisite. Man's dreams, his highest dreams, must now be realized. And the path to that realization is the path of Service; its Goal the attainment to the station of pure Servitude.

"'The sweetness of servitude is the food of my spirit.' These words of the Master indicate the source of His power. His was a vastly higher quality of service than even that of my fanciful imagination... It went far deeper; it rose to far greater heights. It was a quality inherent in His deepest being, and manifested itself in every look, gesture, deed, ... in every breath He drew." (Howard Colby Ives)

If our essential humanity means attaining to an exalted station of servitude to others, then building the capacity necessary to make that service an efficient and effective contribution to helping our society reflect spiritual values held in common by all of humanity becomes top priority. Building and applying such capacities is the true source of power, of a nurtured spirit, the means by which our highest dreams will be realized, the sweetness that cannot be equalled. Further, it provides our life with the meaning that can dissipate stress on a magnitude that tv will never hope to attain.

If this weren't the case, then doing just about anything that implies participation would be a healthy social goal. However, in light of our essential nature, and the source of our true joy, it would be foolish to not push ourselved to greater heights. Of couse, Web 2.0 applications will play an important role in deploying the current massive cognitive surplus in the right direction, but there are such a variety of avenues leading to the station of servitute that we should be constantly exploring as many as we can find.

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