TITLE: Cognitive Surplus and the Future of Programming AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 20, 2008 12:47 PM DESC: ----- BODY: the sitcom All in the Family I grew up on the sitcom of the 1970s and 1980s. As kids, we watched almost everything we saw in reruns, whether from the '60s or the '70s, but I enjoyed so many of them. By the time I got to college, I had well-thought ideas on why The Dick Van Dyke Show remains one of the best sitcoms ever, why WKRP in Cincinnati was underrated for its quality, and why All in the Family was _the_ best sitcom ever. I still hold all these biases in my heart. Of course, I didn't limit myself to sitcoms; I also loved light-action dramas, especially The Rockford Files. Little did I know then that my TV viewing was soaking up a cognitive surplus in a time of social transition, or that it had anything in common with gin pushcarts in the streets of London at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Clay Shirky has published a wonderful little essay, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus that taught me these things and put much of what we see on happening on the web into the context of a changing social, cultural, and economic order. Shirky contends that, as our economy and technology evolve, a "cognitive surplus" is created. Energy that used to be spent on activities required in the old way is now freed for other purposes. But society doesn't know what to do with this surplus immediately, and so there is a transition period where the surplus is dissipated in (we hope) harmless ways. My generation, and perhaps my parents', was part of this transition. We consumed media content produced by others. Some denigrate that era as one of mindless consumption, but I think we should not be so harsh. Shows like All in the Family and, yes, WKRP in Cincinnati often tackled issues on the fault lines of our culture and gave people a different way to be exposed to new ideas. Even more frivolous shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Rockford Files helped people relax and enjoy, and this was especially useful for those who were unprepared for the expectations of a new world. We are now seeing the advent of the new order in which people are not relegated to consuming from the media channels of others but are empowered to create and share their own content. Much attention is given by Shirky and many, many others to the traditional media such as audio and video, and these are surely where the new generation has had its first great opportunities to shape its world. As Shirky says:
Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.
But as I've been writing about here, lets not forget the next step: the power to create and shape the media themselves via programming. When people can write programs, they are not relegated even to using the media they have been given but are empowered to create new media, and thus to express and share ideas that may otherwise have been limited to the abstraction of words. Flickr and YouTube didn't drop from the sky; people with ideas created new channels of dissemination. The same is true of tools like Photoshop and technologies such as wikis: they are ideas turned into reality through code. Do read Shirky's article, if you haven't already. It has me thinking about the challenge we academics face in reaching this new generation and engaging them in the power that is now available to them. Until we understand this world better, I think that we will do well to offer young people lots of options -- different ways to connect, and different paths to follow into futures that they are creating. One thing we can learn from the democratized landscape of the web. I think, is that we are not offering one audience many choices; we are offering many audiences the one or two choices each that they need to get on board. We can do this through programming courses aimed at different audiences and through interdisciplinary major and minor programs that embed the power of computing in the context of problems and issues that matter to our students. Let's keep around the good old CS majors as well, for those students who want to go deep creating the technology that others are using to create media and content -- just as we can use the new technologies and media channels to keep great old sitcoms available for geezers like me. -----