Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to this talk by one of the deepest thinkers about the new structures in society, Clay Shirky. In this talk, Shirky describes the idea of cognitive surplus, and relates it to the way media gets produced and consumed.

I urge you to watch the whole fifteen minutes, it is chock full of important thoughts, engagingly presented:

The large point Shirky makes is that society is only now beginning to figure out what to do with what he calls the “cognitive surplus” that was created as the prosperity kicked off after World War II gave people leisure time that they had not had. For decades, television was what people “did” with the time they had in the evenings and weekends — time society had not had before.

Now, as technology has expanded the options of “things to do” with leisure time, we have seen the growth of new activities. People are creating their own media, and sharing what they create. This is not just popular media, it is also new online projects, lines of research, and creative efforts. Old-line media production organizations (TV networks, movie studios, and publishers) see this interest in self-production as a blip, but Shirky sees it as a fundamental, one-time shift that is not unlike the Industrial Revolution in scope.

His point: there were always three things people liked to do with media (consume it, produce it, and share it). But until recently the high cost of production and sharing allowed a structure to grow up that focused only on producing media for consumption. Now that it is easier to produce and share, the three legs of the stool will equalize, as people pay more attention to their own.

Shirky ends with a story of a dinner party where a friend’s four-year-old daughter is watching a DVD. Suddenly, she gets up and runs behind the TV, rooting around in the cables. “Whatcha doing, honey?” asks her father. “Looking for the mouse,” she replies.

“A four-year-old knows that a video screen that ships without a mouse ships broken,” observes Shirky. The little girl wanted to interact with her show.

Current and future generations know intuitively that media that does not allow for interaction will seem flat and useless.

Cognitive Surplus and Institutions

In the work John Creighton and I have done on the new citizen-centered society, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon. Citizens are less and less willing to adapt themselves to the needs of institutions, and are demanding that things go the opposite way. Institutions that do not recognize this have a rude awakening coming.

It is instructive to relate Shirky’s argument to public institutions and politics in general. Richard Harwood’s landmark report for the Kettering Foundation in 1991, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street, pointed out that Americans are not apathetic but instead feel pushed out of politics. Politics is no longer relevant to the day-to-day concerns of Americans — and political institutions are no longer looked to as a means of solving problems.

(Note that I am not saying the “government” should solve problems. I am describing the use of political structures for helping us decide what to do and organize our response. For instance, the town meeting.)

Since 1991, Harwood’s research and others shows that, if anything, the alienation of people from formal public life has increased.

“Looking for the Mouse” In Public Life

At the same time, however, in other areas of life, the new realities have begun to take hold. People are “looking for the mouse” when they deal with institutions.

What will this nascent change look like as it moves forward?

Some public institutions have begun to respond, in small ways and not always the best ways — but it’s begun. Florida, for example, now requires all school districts to have a formal online learning component. You can view the rise in voluntarism, in part, as an element int he same trend.

We are also seeing experiments where the formal structures are designed to allow citizen involvement (for instance, changes in how Californians operate their primary elections). Some of these experiments will work and others will fail. But the overall trend will be toward more citizen control not less.

One small trend that seems positive is the growth of on-the-ground efforts at more participatory democracy. Localities are the true laboratories of democracy, and some are beginning to rely more on dialog and engagement with citizens in order to make decisions. This is only happening in pockets, but it represents a response to the new citizen-centric demands that public life is placing on formal institutions.

As cognitive surplus increases, and as people begin to understand what they can do with it, such experiments will gain momentum and some may even become new norms.

We don’t know what the change will look like, but we can bet that it will involve “looking for the mouse.”