Cognitive Surplus Gained from Television, Cognitive Deficit Lost from Reading

by John Miedema

Editor's Note: I'm closing the comments on this post because I want you to join the discussion over on John's blog, not here. He poses an interesting question, and I look forward to following the debate.

Clay Shirky has a new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In this book he makes an argument with which I agree. Much of the cognitive surplus we squandered on watching television has been put to better use on the web. I also agree that the potential is enormous. As Shirky observes, Wikipedia was built out of one percent of the hours spent watching television in a year. However, before the web, we also spent more time reading long-form books, shaping the capacity for complex cognition, something that’s changing with the switch to scanning snippets on the web. As MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte observed: “my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared”. This deficit also has enormous consequences. The capacity for complex thought is required to meet the complex social, political and environmental problems of our day. Bottom line, does the surplus exceed the deficit? Have you seen the movie, Idiocracy?