Blog Entry - 12th January 2009 - Philosophy - Society

Cognitive Surplus

I read a thought provoking article recently about the concept of Cognitive Surplus, which is the suggestion that certain human activites are judged (by some) a waste of brain power, and that if we were to put all that wasted brain power to other uses, great progress in society might be achieved.

The example given - often given, in fact - is watching television; an activity which is criticsed as being passive - a bad thing of course.

The article suggests that the total number of brain-hours spent watching TV accross a country dwarfs the amount of effort put into - presumably - less-wasteful activities, such as writing intellectual articles for Wikipedia.

The article muses on what we could do with all that brain-power instead.

This seems, superficially, like a reasonable point; but I would argue that it is instead a reasonably superficial point.

I would suggest that any attempt to isolate one aspect of human life for analysis, leaves so much out; leaves people out; and forgets about the inter-connectedness of things; the dog is the tail and the tail is the dog.

Trivially, if we were all to stop watching television programs, and start making them instead, who would be left to watch them? - or indeed, to read all those Wikipedia articles?

Is the suggestion that we should stop altogether the consumption of the works of others, and concentrate instead on our own creative endeavours? - what is the right balance between consumption and creation? There is entertainment in creating things for yourself; but much of human creative endeavour, I would suggest, is to make things for for others to passively consume; whether that be television programs, books, fashion, cars, sports equipment, dining out, etc etc.

Furthermore, how do we (and is it even sensible to refer to all human beings, with all our differences, as a single we) reach the judgment as to what is wasted time and what is not, particularly given that those millions of us who choose to watch TV presumably think that it is a valuable use of time.

Taken at its broadest, can we easily agree on an accepted valuation of any usage of time? - what is the order of priority?

For instance, might we argue that spending our brain power - not to mention our dwindling world resources - on anything other than basic sustainably produced food, shelter, clothing, and law and order - is a waste?

Or is human life more than subsistence, and if so, how much more? How can we possibly agree, when what we value individually varies so much between us? How can we possibly agree, when our human desires are so variable and chaotic, and when often few of us are prepared to live by the rules we would impose on others? Clearly there is a danger of slipping into a facistic mind-set: a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.

At the other extreme, is the vast complexity of human life that we have now, where anything and everything happens. Is this the only way to be; even if it may eventually mean the complete destruction of the planet? I.e. is human life about a enormous and rapid exploration of everything that is possible and doable (however good or evil, however constructive or destructive); a super-nova of ideas and creativity, burning briefly in the cosmos?

And even if I could identify with certainty what is the most meaningful thing to spend my time doing, I will only have a limited remainder of my life span to do it in, and then my creative achievements (if any) will largely, if not entirely, turn to dust.


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