Arnold Kling  

The Age of Non-government Public Goods

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Why Parties Won't Deliver... Squandering their Cognitive Su...

Clay Shirky says,


all of Wikipedia, the whole project—every page, every edit, every line of code, in every language Wikipedia exists in—that represents something like the cumulation of 98 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 98 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television.

His claim is that we have a "cognitive surplus" that participative media allow us to exploit. He then offers this Masonomist description of the process of learning:

The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you're going. That's the phase we're in now.

I see a possible analogy between what Shirky argues is happening in media and what might happen in the arena of public goods. Shirky claims as individuals are willing to participate at much lower cost, and often for free, in online projects mediated by the Internet. This in turn threatens the position of legacy media.

My conjecture is that this willingness extends to public goods in general. People are willing to participate in projects that produce public goods at lower cost than the government can provide them. Moreover, people with a stake in government--employee unions, traditional politicians, and traditional media commentators, will feel threatened by this.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/889
The author at Club for Growth in a related article titled Fact of the Day writes:
    From Clay Shirky, via EconLog: [A]ll of Wikipedia, the whole project-every page, every edit, every line of code, in every language Wikipedia exists in-that represents something like the cumulation of 98 million hours of human thought. I worked this out... [Tracked on September 4, 2008 11:23 AM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
David N. Welton writes:

It will also threaten some traditional producers of "intellectual property", such as some software producers, since IP is just a hack to create property out of something that's very similar to a public good. For example: Linux, Openoffice, etc...

Nick L. writes:

98 million hours of thought = 1 DVD.

http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_on_CD/DVD

Cost of one DVD? $20?

Hmmm..

Rob Sperry writes:

Exercise in Irony: Discuss how Wikipedia is an extension of Ayn Rands philosophy, and how Jimmy Wales relates to Howard Roark.

sourcreamus writes:

Could you give us an example of how this would work?

Anittah Patrick writes:

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Of course the old guard wants to squash the networked economy. That, of course, is like trying to lobby to prevent factory jobs from going overseas.

Question: should the government build a social network?

Which is really: what would our founding fathers do if they'd had the internet?

Dr. T writes:
"And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television."

His claim is that we have a "cognitive surplus" that participative media allow us to exploit.

Does Shirky honestly believe that the people who contribute to Wikipedia and the people who spend their free time watching television belong to the same population? Most people who park themselves in front of the boob tube for hours upon hours wouldn't be capable of making a useful contribution to Wikipedia or any other project that requires intense cognitive efforts.

Kat writes:

Dr.T: Why do you think they're exclusive? Unless you haven't noticed the extensive and detailed pop-culture/TV coverage on Wikipedia. These are not all written by detached, TV-shunning scholars of culture! (I don't consider this a bad thing, either.)

A fairly small percentage of the people who view Wikipedia make an edit; less than 10%, and I think less than 5% -- so perhaps we're already out of the realm of the average person into the above-average person. But most of those above-average people still watch a lot of TV, and would watch more if they couldn't think of anything better to do.

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