Cognitive Surplus: "Collective Intelligence" or "Organizing Wisdom"?

27 Jan Cognitive Surplus: "Collective Intelligence" or "Organizing Wisdom"?

Cognitive Surplus (kŏg’nĭ-tĭv sûr’pləs) n.

  1. The surplus brain power available as a result of the free time made possible through  technology advances, cultural changes, and new politico-social arrangements

I have had this blog queued up for a long time and an article describing Yahoo’s renewed focus on improving the search experience tweaked me to get this out there. While I will leave the “search” technical details to others, I am most interested in the notion of “human powered” applications. You see, the human mind is truly a beautiful thing – in fact it is so beautiful that it is a terrible thing to waste. I am not talking about the “wasting” in the context of drugs, but wasting in terms of potential CPU cycles.

There is a notion, that I describe as “cognitive capacity” but was previously described by the related term “cognitive surplus“, that describes the potential surplus human brain processing power that is available as less and less our our mental exertion deals with basic survival. We have seen this transition throughout time as the industrial revolution created enough time to give us the basic cultural infrastructure (libraries, democracies, museums, etc) in the 19th century; further advances created the analog diversions of old media (television, movies, etc)  in the 20th century; and even further advances have led to the Internet (mail lists, chat rooms, virtual worlds, etc)  in the 21st century. Perhaps in the new era of shared (collective) responsibility we will focus some of cognitive surplus on things that allow everyone to benefit. As we climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, more and more of this mental energy can potentially be applied to continue to improve the human condition.

More often than not, unfortunately, this precious resource is squandered away in ways that don’t allow collective improvement to be created, shared, and improved upon. Per Clay Shirky,

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

Conversely, what if we proactively encouraged cognitive surplus experiments to produce, share, and collaborate around ideas that actual do help the human condition move forward. This could obviously be powerful (particularly if the amount of surplus is anywhere near the estimated 2000 “wikipedia units” a year). I believe that our problems are becoming significant enough that we have to “to set aside childish things” and begin to really apply our cognitive surplus toward solving some of the major challenges we face. There are already several Health Care projects where efforts are underway to tap into the cognitive surplus for the benefit and betterment of the greater society:

  • Organized Wisdom – I love the notion of human powered search. “I don’t need a 100M results, I just need the 2-3 that really matter. I need a human filter on the search results.”  By putting a human mind inside the technology machine Organized Wisdom is able to deliver results that actually relevant, timely, and personalized. Organized wisdom has a very interesting business model on how they recruit “health care docents” who navigate the confusing results to produce these wisdom cards. These are typically consultants, with cognitive surplus, who are paid for their contributions. By tapping into this surplus, Organized Wisdom is able to produce superior, more meaningful, search results.
  • OpenVista – No where, do I think there is more opportunity to collaborate than within health care IT. I believe there are many options, but for a wide variety of reasons, I still come back to VistA as an exceptional place to begin tapping into not only the cognitive surplus, but the collective intelligence of so many people working on this problem. If everybody could just pull the same direction, spend shared resources solving common problems, and still have the freedom to different on other aspects of the foundational system code, it just makes absolute sense. Cognitive surplus is another way to describe the apparent altruism that exists within open source communities and this particular problem of implementing affordable, proven, and functional health care IT appears to have a reasonable solution in VistA.
  • Medpedia – Given Wikipedias thorough description by Clay, lets briefly highlight an example of some of the best and brightest universities collaborating around “collecting the best information about health, medicine and the body and make it freely available worldwide“. We all need referential and authoratative information from trusted sources, and this type of wikipedia style collaboration obviously would be powerful.

The notion of a cognitive surplus takes on new meaning as the jobless rates continue to spiral . . . how can we tap into that available capacity. Perhaps the new millenniums version of the Civilian Conservation Corps will be relaunched as Cognitive Capacity Corps?


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