Cognitive surplus watch

Thanks to the Internet, Americans are devoting less of their free time to watching television and more to creating socially useful stuff.

As if.

A year ago, the Nielsen Company reported that Americans’ TV viewing hit an all-time record high in the first quarter of 2010, with the average person spending 158 hours and 25 minutes a month in front of the idiot box.* That record didn’t last long. Nielsen has released a new media-usage report, and it shows that in the first quarter of 2011, the average American watched TV for 158 hours and 47 minutes a month, up another 0.2 percent and, once again, a new all-time high.* Twenty years into the Web revolution, and we’re boob-tubier than ever.

But even that understates our video consumption. One of the Net’s big effects has been to free TV programming from the living room and the bedroom. We can now watch the tube through our laptops and smartphones 24/7 – at work, in restaurants, and while strolling down the street. And that’s just what we’re doing. In the first quarter of 2011, the average American watched 4 hours and 33 minutes of streaming video a month on a computer, up a whopping 34.5 percent from year-earlier levels. That same average American watched an additional 4 hours and 20 minutes of video on a mobile phone, up 20 percent from Q1 2010. You no longer need a couch to be a couch potato.

Of course, we’re doing more on the Net than just watching video. We’re also playing Angry Birds. As of the start of this year, human beings were devoting 200 million minutes a day to playing the addictive computer game. That works out to 1.2 billion hours of our collective annual cognitive surplus.*

Bottom line: the more time we spend in front of media devices, the more time we fritter away. Shocked? Me neither.

Previous posts on this subject:

Gilligan’s Web

Charlie Bit My Cognitive Surplus

32 thoughts on “Cognitive surplus watch



    I know this is a different issue to the one of web usage and how it is pushing out, or not, television media. But just for the sake of drawing your focus to issues in other areas – on the thing about digital drawings versus paper. Sydney Pollack made a documentary film with architect Frank Gehry a few years back. You will see in that documentary, a very ambitious member of Gehry’s staff, describe how much the world currently operates around paper. The guys on Gehry’s staff, were of the opinion, that paper had to be taken out of circulation altogether. It is not just the paper less office. It is all of the other public systems at the moment, connected to a new building project, that require paper in some shape or form, in order to go through channels.

    It is the idea of one media trying to push out another, and the other, pushing back against the change.

    I was probably on the side of Gehry’s staff, until I considered the views of my old colleague. What happens when architects no longer ‘look’ at their own drawings at all. It is like a musician, not bother to develop technical skills of using an instrument.

    Jeff Hawkins talked once about his strategy with the Palm Pilot. He noted how other companies, had aimed with their handheld products to try and compete with other computer platforms, or other handheld devices. Hawkins was quite straight about what he was trying to do. He wasn’t competing with other technology products at all. He was competing with paper. It was that simple.

    I have to say, when I used a Palm Pilot once for three years running, at the end of that period, I realized how USEFUL paper is. Paper is really an in-genius thing. It’s light weight, doesn’t require charge up, you can read it in bright sunlight, you don’t have to boot it up to read it. There are a lot of advantages with paper, that digital devices will take a long time to displace fully. I think that digital devices only fill in little gaps, where paper can’t manage. For instance, you can carry around several books at a time with digital eReaders. That is precisely where you see eReaders gaining ground, where school kids have heavy bags to carry. It out-weighs the disadvantage of needing charge points and so forth.

    Also, Nick Gershenfeld from MIT, wrote in his books I think, about highly classified documents such as aircraft maintenance manuals, which are a real security risk. Rather than allow those very heavy manuals lying around the place, having to shred out of date versions, insert new pages etc, it made sense to allow aircraft engineers to access the same through secure eReader devices.

    I’m all for replacing paper in situations where it makes absolute sense. But the jury is still out, in reference to the Gehry architect notion – that we need to eliminate paper throughout the system. It reminds me of John Thackara’s criticism, of the fad, where we remove all human touch points in the design of services. Thackara’s point was simple. We need to leave touch points at various places, but get most strategic benefit from them. I would replace paper in a ‘system’ where it offers maximum strategic benefit. But if we find ourselves in situations, where architects no longer view their own drawings, then we have over shot that optimal balance, by a big margin.

  2. Nick Carr

    Stewart, I can’t speak for Susan Greenfield. As to your sense of what may be in my book, the best way to discover what’s in a book, I’ve found, is to read it. Nick


    Nick wrote: “As to your sense of what may be in my book, the best way to discover what’s in a book, I’ve found, is to read it.”

    It’s like what happens with architects not viewing their own drawings any longer. They would assume that stuff was represented on the paper, because it was on the screen, and so forth. I sometimes assume I’ve read a book, because I’ve visited the authors blog etc. I think, it creeps up on us all, in the digital era for some reason.

  4. Jeffrey Cufaude

    Methinks you might be protesting too much here. It’s not the device that matters. It’s what we do on the device and what value we derive from it.

    My 4 hours a month of streaming video most recently has been watching documentaries for free from because that is a great benefit extended to Prime members. I’ve learned tons and actually bought a couple of books to learn more about the topics covered in the movies.

    And more and more conferences are streaming video like TED, PopTech, etc. so a lot of what may be going on might very well be good for our brains.

  5. Stewart Dinnage

    “Read the book” seems fair comment Nick. I’ve been trying to get my local library to sort it out for over 6 months.

    I know my comments may read like I’m simply against your position, which isn’t the case. Your article on wired shows some of the depth of consideration and research that has lead to your thoughts, which are clearly valuable and a joy to read. The parallels you draw to previous historical technological developments are thought provoking and insightful. Besides Charles Handy, I cannot think of another writer whose words on technology, progress or business feel as well crafted and enjoyable to digest.

    My only complaint regarding the framing of scientific enquiry, applies far less to someone whose position and history does not imply personal insight through primary research. I’m just concerned when people invoke the name of science without apparently following the typical scientific method to assess what has been suggested.



    I thought I might mention this. It somewhat relates to the issue of the Cognitive Surplus, that Shirky talks about. This is part of an abstract from a talk delivered by Victoria Stodden at a conference in Toronto a couple of years back, which was summarised by the Canadian software blogger at the address linked below. Stodden’s blog is also good, and her talks, slides etc are available at several places in one searches.

    As computation becomes more pervasive in scientific research, it seems to have become a mode of discovery in itself, a “third branch” of the scientific method. Greater computation also facilitates transparency in research through the unprecedented ease of communication of the associated code and data, but typically code and data are not made available and we are missing a crucial opportunity to control for error, the central motivation of the scientific method, through reproducibility.

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