Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Cognitive Surplus

Sometimes I scare myself. I step back and look at what The Carrot Project wants to accomplish, and I wonder if it's possible.

It's a big project, and, in my opinion, it's a project that requires a whole heap of very human work.

Identifying the companies that are doing the best things for the world is something that corporate social responsibility data and socially responsible investment data can't do alone. The data can give us a place from which to start, but I think real live people have to take the data and run with it.

We need to question the numbers. We need to dispute them. We need to understand inconsistencies. We need to prioritize, reprioritize, and admit that prioritization is an impure and unpredictable science. We need to measure, collectively, through conversation and argument and the sharing of patchwork knowledge, what mathematics can't measure.

And we need to be humble enough about what we create to question it just as rigorously as we question the data.

I can't do it alone. Brent and I can't do alone. Brent and Carl and Eric and Wiley and I can't do alone.

This project is big. And sometimes it starts to feel impossible.

But then I see things like this:

And I remember that of course it's possible.

100 million hours of human creative energy built Wikipedia.

In the US alone, every year, we spend 200 billion hours watching TV.

That's 2000 Wikipedia projects' worth of human potential spent consuming others' media creations.

And, as much as we like consuming, we like producing and sharing as well. And we do. We blog. We podcast. We make videos about microblogging and throw them up on YouTube. We imagine what it would be like if cats could type. We ask people what they think of our faces.

And, maybe someday, we'll carve another little tiny slice of that TV time, that "cognitive surplus." We'll identify the businesses that are doing the best things for the world. We'll help each other choose to support them rather than their competitors. We'll create incentives for businesses to do more and more good. A we'll lay the groundwork for a race to the top.

*Note: It's August 6. Happy birthday Mom!


Unknown said...

You and Baldie both inspire me :)

Morgan Morgan said...

I share Clay Shirky's enthusiasm and your guarded optimism. Here's my major worry, and I wonder what you think about it.

Much of the appeal of big corporations and the mainstream media is the breadth of their offerings. I can go to Wal-Mart and buy all the essentials, or turn on CNN and get a composite of the news I "should" know about.

Niche websites are often less flexible -- no use talking about Iraq on your Appalachian poverty blog, or trying to rally people about Sudan on I think this balkanization could be an impediment. Are like-minded start-ups going to begin merging? Or will the highly specific nature of many internet groups -- say, vegans vs. vegetarians vs. fish-eating vegetarians -- disallow the kind of cooperation and intellectual capital that helped create something like Wikipedia? Or will all these little efforts at change be more satisfying than just a few bigger movements?

Anonymous said...

Ha I wish I'd noticed this in that thing that tells me what to read before I sent you that last email. You can go ahead and delete that.

I think that most people who read your blog would probably agree that this is a very good idea, and you can only hope that a sizable piece of the world feels the same way. Once you put it into the community's hands, its' really up to them what the site can do.

Like field of dreams, but without James Earl Jones. Or the field.

"If you build it, they might come"

Jake de Grazia said...

re: courtney

My sis says Baldie reminds her of me. I'm flattered I guess.

Jake de Grazia said...

re: michael

I don't know what to expect. I think you're right that there's a Balkanization worry (I very much appreciate the intensity of that metaphor; well played), but I also think it's good for the online conversation to get deep into things as specific as fish-eating vegetarianism. I think highly specialized sites are actually inclusive in their exclusivity. They bring people in that maybe wouldn't otherwise start contributing, start spending their time sharing and creating rather than watching TV. Maybe the specialized spaces are the gateway drugs to Wikipedia participation?

Am I on the right track with this response? It's late, dude, and I'm tired. I'm going to have to check back in tomorrow to see what else I should add.

Jake de Grazia said...

re: alex

They might. Might have to give them free beer or something to coax them over though.

Anonymous said...

At least internet-beers are cheaper than real ones.

Jake de Grazia said...

re: michael

One more thought about the Balkanization of online communities.

I think there's a key difference between what Wal-Mart and CNN (and Yahoo!) offer and what online communities offer.

Wal-Mart, CNN, and Yahoo! offer (primarily anyway) goods or info for us to CONSUME.

Online communities offer consumables as well, but, compared to superstores and big box media, they offer huge opportunity for their users to PRODUCE.

Wikipedia is an unusual case. It's consumed at the 500lb gorilla level, but it's produced by consumers.

I think it achieves its high consumption levels in large part due to the breadth of its offerings, but I think it's important to remember that there aren't that many people that contribute heaps to Wikipedia. Its long tail of contributions is unusually long and thus hugely valuable, but its core contribution community isn't so big to make it unreplicable.

And I think it's also important to remember that no niche contribution community will need to be nearly as big as Wikipedia's.

And important to remember that having very specific barrels into which we can drop our knowledge might be a very good thing for knowledge quality:

Maybe I'm a trapeze genius. I know everything there is to know about trapezes. I hope there exists a small but totally passionate trapeze community that can stimulate and challenge me as I open source my trapeze wisdom. If you throw me in with a bunch of clowns and lion tamers, I might get discouraged by their inability to speak my language, and my trapeze knowledge might never find heirs.

But maybe this rant is irrelevant. Maybe what you really want to know is how we might weave lots of small communities into big, broad info sources for consumption? How we might harness the niche communities to create another Wikipedia or five?

I think we take the trapeze wisdom and dump it into Wikipedia, for one.

And I think we also set up some well designed info aggregators, info organizers, and info synthesizers.

Collect knowledge in the niche barrels, let the people that care most and understand best turn the knowledge to wisdom, and feed the wisdom into broad reaching, cross-referenced enlightenment disseminators.


Morgan Morgan said...

"Collect knowledge in the niche barrels, let the people that care most and understand best turn the knowledge to wisdom, and feed the wisdom into broad reaching, cross-referenced enlightenment disseminators."

I think you got it here. Thanks for the response.