Cognitive Surplus visualized

Monday, July 19th, 2010

I was listening to writer Clay Shirky talk about cognitive surplus – the idea of spare brainpower in the world’s collective mind just sitting there waiting, wanting, to be harnessed.

He had a stand-out statistic that snagged my mind. I thought I would visualise it.

See the image on its own

Shocking proportion. Interestingly, when I sketched the diagram, my imagination had the scale way wrong.

Books and Store

Our Beautiful Books - Information is Beautiful Information is Beautiful Store

Show Comments ( )

  • Eric
  • Saqib Ali

    Where else would people get information to create artikles in wikipedia, if not to watch TV for 200 billion hrs?

  • Emily

    Oh, man. This makes me want to get up and DO something!

  • anon

    Maybe someone can explain this because I really do not understand Shirkey’s point here. The 100 million hours is all free labour, while the 200 billion hours is essentially consumption made possible by payed labour. To take this even further, much of the TV watching is probably in direct response to the mundaneness and exhaustion caused by most jobs. Is the point you are encouraging here that people should be spending 100% of their time working and none of it consuming? Isn’t that simply capitalism without the benefit?

  • Alex Kerin

    The cynic in me will say that we already have too many people contributing to Wikipedia. Perhaps my mind would be happier with something like TV hours vs. hours spent improving your neighborhood.

  • Ass Face

    jesus christ shut up alex

  • Mark Ellis

    You misspelled Shirky as “Chirky” in the image footer.

  • Alex Bowe

    Nice visualisation, but I’m not shocked by this proportion at all. I would expect there to be more people watching TV than updating Wikipedia, and probably more often. Then, some of the people who update Wikipedia also watch TV at other times, so they contribute to both squares. Then there are documentaries on TV which I personally wouldn’t call wasted cognitive hours.

    I think this visualisation invites the assumption that updating Wikipedia is the only intelligent thing we do as humans. This is simply not true, of course, and although it is impossible, it would be interesting to see Entertainment hours vs Learning hours. I wonder how out of proportion that’d be.

  • Cherrie

    Hi – could you re-visualise that as say, a vanishing spiral, with the area of the vanishing point being the Wikipedia 100 million and the rest of the “ribbon” area being the TV 100 billion? Would that work??

    Just to create the idea of a downward spiral or wastage. :P


  • Cherrie

    Or upward spiral.

  • Nihiltres

    @Alex Kerin But would you not rather people contribute to Wikipedia than stare at a television? I won’t get into debating which is better, improving Wikiledia or improving one’s local area—rather I think that it is evident in the diagram here that there is a larger issue of getting people to contribute time to productive public-benefit projects in the first place, before we even think of the relative merits of particular projects over others.

  • Nihiltres

    I think the graph would be more impressive if you took into account that the assumed 100M hours to create Wikipedia were spread out over several years (while the 200B hours of television are per year. I’m not sure that’s particularly evident in the current graphic; at very least it seems understated.

  • docwho2100

    @Alex – wouldn’t that graphic have an even smaller box (like a pinprick next to the tv box)?? Sad, but true…..

  • Anonymous

    ….. In response to the above comment; contributing to Wikipedia could certainly “improve one’s neighborhood” by increasing intellectual awareness, overall consciousness of reality, how exactly a person might go about “improving one’s neighborhood,” and through the use of a tool as valuable and relevant as Wikipedia; this creates a much more involved and active community in the sense of an international community or “neighborhood” joining hands and working together for once.

    I feel extremely strong about the usefulness and vast set of applications that Wikipedia provides opportunities for and thereby creates, and I simply find it ridiculous that some individuals cannot see that. I pride myself in being a highly objective individual, and in doing so, I recognize that misinformation is possible to be perpetuated through an open resource such as Wikipedia. At the same time, I recognize the facts that Wikipedia requires that one cites the sources of all claims! I never cease to be frustrated by ignorant teachers who claim that Wikipedia is not a source; I suppose that one might say that it is an indirect source, but it still is backed up by a multitude of resources. Furthermore, individuals who deface or attempt to perpetuate misinformation are banned from editing the site.. Also, most vandalism is quickly reverted to its previous state. For future reference, please try to back up such claims with sound arguments before attempting to prove a point…. it’s a waste of your time and others’ time.

    I firmly commend and respect this author’s point, along with his/her creativity to bring such a valid and noteworthy point into the visual realm! Nice work. :)

  • Graphity

    Oh, geeze. I’d love to know how many hours you US guys spend reading books. Is there any way to get that number from somewhere?

  • Dominic Newbould

    Of course, you may be watching the Simpsons on tv – or you may be studying with the Open University… A critical perceptual shift perhaps?

  • Cheri Turner

    Graphity- Ignoring your inference that all people in the US are dumb and spend less time reading than people in other countries, what counts as reading? Does it have to be books? Is reading a JK Rowling or Stieg Larsson novel more intellectual and worthwhile than reading an article in Scientific American or watching a documentary on tv?

    Also, if you actually care about statistics, there are ways to find them on the internet, rather than just spouting off an insult in the comments section of a website. Here is a summary of the American time use survey. Feel free to compare it to the statistics in your own country, then draw conclusions once you have the facts.

  • clg6000

    Though you could quibble with the accuracy of the conclusions you can draw from this somewhat uneven comparison (as already commented, what if the “TV watching” box included watching video university courses? What if the Wikipedia entries included entries about TV shows?)– I think this does get at a major imbalance between passive and active entertainment. That would be the really interesting (although much more difficult to acquire) data to analyze.

    How much time do we spend consuming versus the time we could be producing? If we all took a look at our own personal free-time expenditures, I bet this graphic wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It would also be interesting to see how this creating vs. devouring has changed over the past few decades, or how different the balance is between various cultures/countries.

    Bored sociologists out there: get to work!

  • Sarah

    What i’m curious about, is the breakdown of types of television watched. Because what part of that time is used to watch news, documentaries, cooking shows (essentially shows that try to teach something), sports, and so on.

    Because it depends on what kind of benefits that can be derived from what is being watched. Different types of television can give different benefits and while i would agree there are time wasters on air, i think that there are also shows that get people thinking and use some of that cognitive surplus up.

  • vicente

    I would like to recommend this Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense

    An actual periodic table, i.e. the phenomena as you move down columns are related, for the most part, which is a concept lost on many makers of spoofy so-called periodic tables (Or is that tables made of spoofium)

    By the way, I love this blog.


  • Chris

    Yes, but how much of Wikipedia is concerned WITH popular culture. What percentage of content is devoted to TV, Movies, Celebrity….
    Human activity is emergent, we are what we are. Every activity is equally valid.

  • John Hyde

    I would contrast some different figures:

    Time invested in music lessons & practice for a child to reach grade 8 on any instrument (guess at 1000 hours).

    Time spent watching just adverts on TV in an average childhood (guess at a similar size number).

  • AJ

    I agree with Nihiltres, it would be a more accurate visual representation to aggregate over equal time periods for both options.

    I realize the graphic represents an implicit assumption on Shirky’s part that a unit of cognitive time is fungible between creative and consumptive states, but would it be a fairer comparison if, say, TV viewing were compared to Wikipedia page views? There may be a human cognitive constraint at work in terms of volume of information consumption versus production.

  • Maxim

    I’m afraid that the devil might be in the detail. Whose 100mln hrs? And whose 200bln hrs?
    In terms of education & creativity level, attitude, desire to change the world, self-confidence, etc, etc difference might be huge. But the surplus is till there of course and somehow it might probably be activated… And visualization is beautiful of course. I am just not sure that we can equal one hour of Wikipedia creators to 1 hour of an average TV watching couch-potato…

  • pablo

    Nice data.
    I am always thinking about the convenience of showing one dimension data (such us hours) as areas. Are our eyes prepared to ‘understand’ that?

  • justonlyjohn

    wonder how the forthcoming socialtv shift may change this. prob not but hey, we can hope right?

  • Ravi Patel

    I think this is a bit missrepresentative. My guess is that the 100 million hours to create wikipedia only deals with peoples editing and writing of articles. It probably doesn’t count the time required by people actually learning the material ahead of time and posting to wikipedia.

  • Steve Hoefer

    A lot of people commenting are taking this very literally. The concept of Cognitive Surplus isn’t about TV vs Wikipedia or a critique on the quality of either. It could have easily been a comparison of time spent commuting vs time spent researching cancer cures.

    Cognitive Surplus (and this chart) shows the amazing things we can do if we collectively put a small amount of effort into something–emphasis on small. The magnitude of effort vs return is simply astounding. If 10% of people volunteer just 5 minutes a month for a year they’ll have done more work than five thousand people can do in a lifetime. What can we do with that kind of power?

  • Susan

    Given the utter crap that can be found on Wikipedia (to say nothing of trying to argue with the idiots who put it there), I’d say that at least half of that time is wasted, or worse. At least the TV watching isn’t actively negative.

  • Lieb

    First of all, I admire your site and work. But this graphic seems too “easy.” The thesis of “TV is bad, educational pursuits are good” is just too simplistic. The graphic oversimplifies something which is probably quite complex if you were to dive deeper (as previous commenters have noted.) I would imagine hearing Clay’s statistic as part of his thesis would interesting, bun on it’s own it leaves me cold.

  • Sean

    My children broke our flat screen a year ago, and my wife and I elected not to replace it. I have just completed a 120-page screenplay that I am sure I never would have written if I’d glued to the boob tube every night after a day at the office.
    Not to mention I’m spending a lot more time playing actively with my children.

  • Gene Chase

    –great visualization, didn’t find another place on your website to inform you of it!

  • Jakim

    This chart doesn’t say anything relevant it is comparing two entirely unrelated instances. There are so many people contributing to Wikipedia and who say some of it isn’t fake, or misleading, or just plain uninteresting and unproductive. Comparing the consumption (based on statistics, so it is probably skewed to the max) of roughly 200 million (made up number) people to a few million is misleading. That means they watch around 3 hrs a day big deal thats like the time if took me to see inception (travel time, line time, preview time, movie time, home time). WHO CARES!

  • Rick Abrams

    I suspect we are better off with those people watching 200 Billion hours of TV NOT trying to contribute to Wikipedia.

  • Rick Abrams

    I know my assumptions were fallacious but so is the entire premise.

  • NIM

    I don’t think it’s too bad: It’s the people’s spare time and hanging around while producing nothing is OK. I get wary if people are encouraged to sacrifice their little spare time just to continue with value production (to society in this case) as opposed to “immoral” consumption for pleasure’s sake. It’s not Wikipedia only; there is MUCH work out there and people can certainly be used to cover all this work––BUT: that’s a technocratic perspective with people being tools and not individuals any longer.

  • clancy

    Hmm. not kinda right for this site as it’s a pretty drab visual compared with some of the other more creative stuff on this site. The gist of the idea – dis-encouraging idleness of the particular type falling in the category of television viewing – seems to be noble and has a great premise to stimulate debate. The sad thing is that pc/computer/internet screen time can also be shown to have a negative and detrimental impact to human health and humanity. Hypocritical perhaps but so am I.

  • Rick Abrams

    Considering the educational level in the USA, it wouldn’t be much better than the 1000 monkeys with typewriters.

  • Vincent Breslin

    I suppose a proportion of those 200 billion hours could of been used for negative reasons too. Cognegative surplus.

  • A.S.

    I was thinking about that comment too!! Were you at the NY Tech Meet up in July when he spoke?

  • Felix

    and there’s an incredible wealth of untapped talen from retired lawyers, academics etc.

  • e a hemiola

    Yikes. This is causing me to seriously rethink. Had all kinds of plans. I even made lists. But look how out of proportion this is! Back to the TV. Safety in numbers.

  • Beth JERVIS

    WOAH! There is a lot of work to do… but at least there is a visible dint :)

  • Rinske W.

    I love the idea behind this visualization and the idea of Cognitive Surplus. This statistic does not have to imply anything about the value of time spent watching tv vs. creating Wikipedia, but rather is a visualization of the free time we have. Which we can do anything with, whether it be watch tv or not. The interesting thing is that the options for spending that time are now increasing and while tv still will be watch, many of us knowing these options will take some time to contribute to the field of usable knowledge. It is the potential envisaged above which excites me.

  • translation services

    I think this show invites the assumption that the updating of the Wikipedia is the only smart thing we do as human beings. This is simply not true, of course, and although it is impossible, it would be interesting to see hours of entertainment in front of school hours

  • Zsuzs

    Consider: 2 billion men spend daily with shaving 20 000 hours!

  • Chuck Hamilton

    Thanks for the visit and lunch chat. Back in Canada now and thinking more about how to use this. Much of our work of late is focused on how to better understand and motivate connection among disparate teams and individuals. Clearly there is much untapped resource and innovation buried in what Shirky describes as ‘Cognitive Surplus’. There is gold here, we need only connect it. Thanks for keeping it simple.

  • Annabel

    How many of those people watching the TV own computers? Did I miss someone making that point already?

  • Pugz

    This equates to roughly 300,000 life times spent watching TV per year in the US. Or 821 life times a day.

  • Currency Converter

    This is why the evolution of human race will always be a mistery :/