“Cognitive Surplus” and Invisible Colleges

Clay Shirky famously discusses “Cognitive Surplus” in his 2010 book (Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: The Penguin Press.). He sees the web as exploiting the availability of small amounts of attention and effort which are “donated” relatively painlessly, but add up to huge accomplishments, such as wikipedia.

Part of the point, of course, is that networked digital technology has created interesting ways for people to share with relatively little cost. Exchanging thoughtful letters by hand takes significant work and time, but electronic messaging is almost effortless.  The idea here is that some “left over” cognitive energy might be insufficient to write and dispatch a hand written letter, but is sufficient to zip off email or a blog comment. Shirky finds that, apparently, there must have been a lot of that “left over” stuff, not being used until the two-way internet came into wide use.

I’ll refer you to Shirky and others for more on this point, and let you decide on the value of the products of this surplus.

What I wanted to comment on was a related, and quite amusing fragment from the distant past, intellectual ancestry of this concept.

Long, long, ago there were people called “scientists”, who collaborated globally and shared their work–through paper and ink.  Almost every social structure and phenomenon seed on the Internet was seen in these primitive communities, albeit in slow motion.  Work was “published”, ideas were discussed in exchanges of comments (including primitive flame wars), records were archived and indexed. All without computers!  Pretty cool, huh.

In the 1960s, sociologists discovered, as has been “rediscovered” on the Internet 30 years later, the social networks that developed from these practices.  An influential work by Price termed them “Invisible Colleges” (a term that has become a strong meme), calling attention to the real social networks that overlay formal organizational and ideological structures.

In one early work, Price examined papers with multiple authors, i.e., collaborative publications.  Interestingly, he counted up each person’s ‘publications’, awarding fractional publications, e.g., each of n authors receives 1/n points for a given work.  So, in a lifetime, one person will have, say 8.913 publications. This can be applied to web content, for example, perhaps awarding tiny, tiny fractions of a point to each contributor to wikipedia.

Memorably, he (Price) suggested that everyone has a certain number of papers “in them” over their lifetime, but that number is not an integer.

“We suggest on this basis that part of the social function of collaboration is that it is a method for squeezing papers out of the rather large population of people who have less than a whole paper in them.” P.1015

DE SOLLA PRICE, D. J., & BEAVER, D. (1966). COLLABORATION IN AN INVISIBLE COLLEGE. American Psychologist., 21(11), 1011-1018.

Connecting this with Shirky’s ‘surplus’, we see that the social web is “a method for squeezing content out of the rather large population of people who have less than a whole meme in them” (or something like that :-))

At last, we finally have the real reason for the internet.

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