Trainspotting and the Cognitive Surplus

Here’s a video showing giant dominoes assembled from smaller dominoes. It’s pretty satisfying to watch them topple. This must have taken TIME.

There are probably thousands of videos like this. If you prefer, you can have Japanese people making mechanical versions of Super Mario. Or maybe BristleBots.

All around the web people are doing fun stuff, posting it up and inspiring others. But if you are anything like them, you may have occasionally been told that you have “too much time on your hands”. This comment is reserved for those who cultivate a special interest in something. Maybe something a little unusual or esoteric.

So you painstakingly assemble giant dominoes from smaller dominoes, do you?

Or maybe you re-enact historical battles?

Or collect stuff?

Or you know your way down a list of real ales or northern soul tunes? (Those two usually go together.)

In the United Kingdom (N55:56:58 W3:9:37) we used to be very suspicious of anoraks. By that I mean, not the coats themselves but the people – usually blokes – who wear them. If you don’t follow UK slang, anorak is almost synonymous with the word geek or nerd. They have a fixation or obsessive interest in something. (The way it usually differs from the archetypal geek is that the pursuit of an anorak doesn’t necessarily have a creative aspect.)

Back in school days, I remember showing a teacher a sprite animation engine I had programmed in C. I mentioned how it was the basis of a new computer game I was writing in my free time. I expected maybe a discussion of how I could improve or develop the idea. To my surprise, this IT teacher responded by calling me a “sad git”.

If you’re out there, Ms Hatcher, feel free to drop me a line as I’d love to show you all the fun and cool stuff I’ve been doing since then, in spite of your discouragement. Ha! No hard feelings.

What’s the implication of the original comment – berating enthusiasts for having “too much time on their hands”? I believe it’s the fact they’re nonconformists. They don’t subscribe to the work ethic that dictates you must be immediately useful all of the time. The subtext? If you’re not focusing purely on the tasks set for you, you’re not being “productive” and must be wasting your energy. Well, a counter-revolution to this poisonous idea is forming. Read Quitting The Paint Factory or almost anything from The Idler.

I can’t always explain geek or anorak behaviour. Like the appeal of jotting down endless lists of train numbers on a Saturday afternoon. But I do know that those people get a lot of joy out of it. They might retort by asking about the appeal of sitting passively in an armchair at home alone – watching, say, the TV show Friends.

These days of course, there’s a rising geek quotient in the media too. (Anyone care to plot this on a graph?) It’s what Stephen Hawking, Quentin Tarantino, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have in common. I’m aware the latter and Microsoft (MSFT) get criticism from uber-geeks for their company’s products and dominance – but that just adds to the geek credentials for both parties. Those uber-geeks have more in common with Bill Gates than they’d care to admit. Such bitching and quarrelling is expected in any sidelined or alternative group of people. Besides, the real disdain is reserved for Steve Ballmer, on the basis that he’s a pure ruthless businessman. Importantly for them, he’s not known for writing even a single line of computer code. What a fraud eh!

The author and speaker Clay Shirky talks about society having time on its hands but he prefers to call it a cognitive surplus.

(With a surname like that, he should write for The Idler.)

Here’s an insightful speech Shirky did at some geek expo earlier this year. He defines the cognitive surplus and talks about the benefits of consuming, producing and sharing – as well as the phenomena of “lolcats” and “grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves”. There’s a transcript but check out the video:

The cognitive surplus has made me see our Sleeveface exploits in a new way. Not only did technology and social networking help it to spread, but people have the urge to take part because of new habits of recreation and participation. Look out for the book!

Passivity is, literally, lame. So, make sure you write your own definition of cool. Develop your interests and keep on having fun.

5 Replies to “Trainspotting and the Cognitive Surplus”

  1. wow, shirky is a smart fella.
    I’ve never heard the term ‘cognitive surplus’ before. Really interesting. Passivity is lame indeed. Thankfully thats one thing that I don’t suffer from!

    This blog is way more informative and thought provoking than mine 🙂

  2. Hey Carl, I followed you over from your post to crowdsourcing. Great blog, I really had to laugh with the “sad git” comment. I was a public school anorak wearer and most probably a sad git until I decided to give up on it all, schooling, at 15. I haven’t looked back other than to refresh my memory for the odd bit of writing. Cheers. Alan

  3. I honestly believe that Trainspotting is as valid an occupation as olympic athlete.

    As we all get more time left over after attending to our basic biological needs we get more freedom to do the things that make us unique, and technology is gradually giving us the tools to do whatever we want.

    When I first got onto the internet the thing that most amazed and delighted me was all the individual creativity and passion for a huge range of different things that the traditional media with its minimum runs and break-evens just didn’t have room for. People are amazing!

    There is no externally-mandated point or purpose to life, therefore you’re completely free to invent your own. We’re all just killing time until we die, so make the most of it.

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