“Cognitive Surplus” and Participation in Government

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Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, presented his idea of cognitive surplus a couple of years ago, but it seems especially relevant to the current push toward open government, most notably by the Obama Administration but also by public agencies at all levels. Like other interpreters of internet technology, he describes the impact of new platforms for participation primarily on business, media and popular culture rather than government and public policy. His idea of cognitive surplus, though, as a source of public inventiveness and action that applies to every sector, public or private.

Several ideas in the video readily translate from mass media to the context of government:

  • The public is learning to convert at least a small amount of time spent passively watching TV to participatory action in online networks. This started with hobbies and social interaction – collaborative networks of gamers, photo sharing groups on Flickr, reunion of friends on Facebook – but now extends to political campaigns and crowdsourcing ideas for business and government.

  • For decades, media [government] has regarded the public as consumers of information rather than participants. The growing demand, especially from younger people who have grown up with the internet, is for an interactive experience where the viewer adds value as a producer of content. Media [government] needs to adapt to a cultural shift toward participation and collaboration.

  • Information, as well as media content, is most often controlled exclusively by institutions and businesses. Shirky cites a Brazilian professor who created a crime map of the country. He found it easier to develop the data from scratch rather than attempt to get it from the public authorities, so great were their barriers to disclosure. This example points exactly to the purpose of the transparency dimension of the Open Government Initiative: to publish online the data that the private sector can put into useful forms with existing online tools. (In this case, Google Maps.)

  • The early phase of the shift to producing as well as consuming comes with a lot of chaos and failed attempts as one experiment after another is tried. The period of greatest productivity from the untapped potential of people’s “spare time” is likely to come after the novelty has worn off and new tools have become as standard as the telephone.

Shirky argues that this shift to participating and producing is not a fad dependent on one technology but a lasting change in society. I think this is true and especially relevant to the open government movement. Because of new public expectations and resources, it will be hard for any government not to collaborate with its citizens.

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2 Responses to “ “Cognitive Surplus” and Participation in Government ”

  1. Hi John,
    I agree with your assessment on governments needing to collaborate with its citizens. I just happen to be reading Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody book!; a fascinating read… e.g., in his book, Shirky delves into Wikipedia – and how it is a new social model of collaboration that is (suprisingly) working. Makes me wonder what other models are being created, similar to Brazilian example, by a few caring people, and which will add momentum to the open government movement.

  2. Hi, Ben –

    I’m pulling together some sites now that link to new apps using open data. Here’s what Tim Berners-Lee has done for the UK, and here’s the Wash DC site for community apps.

    Governments are making data available online, and private developers are producing useful applications from those datasets. There’s a lot of activity going on but it’s often hard to locate. Hopefully I’ll get a post up about this in another week or so.

    Thanks for coming by –

    John