This morning, I was catching up on the BBC’s Digital Planet podcasts while I was out for a jog, and I heard this interview with Clay Shirky, who argues that worldwide, one trillion hours of spare human time is available on a yearly basis for collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia. He refers to these hours as cognitive surplus, and he asserts that this surplus exists not because the tools for online collaboration have recently become available, but rather because people are “motivated to behave in the ways they’re now given the opportunity to behave in.” Thus, public collaborative efforts like Wikipedia exist not because we have wikis, but rather because people care about the project and are now able to make use of Internet tools to help them create an encyclopedia that will benefit both the community and society in general. As the BBC interviewer remarks, Shirky is optimistic about the potential for cognitive surplus: he believes it is being and will be used for the greater good rather than for malicious purposes, such as marginalizing a particular community.
Shirky has also given a TED Talk on his concept of cognitive surplus, and you can find it on YouTube here. In this presentation, he uses the crisis mapping platform Ushahidi as an example of an open-source collaborative effort that spread from a single user in East Africa to global use in just three years. He describes cognitive surplus as the ability of the world’s population to volunteer and cooperate on large, often global projects. It is composed of the world’s free time and talent (the 1-trillion-plus hours mentioned in the BBC podcast) and the online tools that allow the world to actively create, share and consume products rather than just passively consume products such as television programs. He then contrasts the two types of projects that can be developed through cognitive surplus: those with communal value (such as LOLCats, whose value is created by the participants for one another) and those with civic value (such as Ushahidi, whose value is created by the participants but enjoyed by society as a whole). The goals of a project with civic value is to make life better not just for the participants but for everyone in the societies in which the project is operating. As Shirky argues, when organizations are arranged around a culture of generosity, they can achieve significant results without contractual overhead.
Shirky is essentially speaking about crowdsourcing, although he doesn’t mention the term. And although he doesn’t bring up translation as an example of how cognitive surplus can be used, social translation, which I have discussed here and here, could be (and is) one of the tasks on which cognitive surplus is spent. Thus, texts could be translated to benefit a community (e.g. fansubbing of anime) or to benefit society in general (e.g. blog postings at Global Voices Online).
But some of Shirky’s arguments raise some ethical questions, particularly with respect to collaborative translation projects. First, I think Shirky’s proposal to classify collaborative efforts as having either communal or civic value is problematic. Can all collaboration really be considered one or the other? Do projects change over time? Who decides whether a project has communal or civic value—the community or those outside it? For instance, fansubbing would likely be considered to have communal value, since the subtitling is not intended to benefit society as a whole but rather the community of anime fans who are unable to understand Japanese. And yet, subtitles make these videos accessible to anyone who wants to watch anime in a language other than the original, whether or not the viewer considers him- or herself to be part of the community of anime fans. This is also the case for the subtitled TED Talks, which make high-level presentations available to viewers around the world, whether they are part of the community who watches them on the TED website, or whether they are outside the community and simply come across one of the subtitled videos on YouTube (like this one, for instance). And what about a project like Facebook, which has a community of 500 million users around the world: when the cognitive surplus of people around the world is used to make Facebook available in languages other than English, this is benefiting the Facebook community, isn’t it? But won’t it also benefit society as a whole, since people who were not previously on Facebook due to their inability to understand English may now enjoy accessing this free service in French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, German, etc. And it certainly benefits Facebook, but Shirky does not have a category for that. Translation, by its nature, makes information available to communities other than the original target audience. When cognitive surplus is used to produce translation, projects with communal value become projects with civic value.
And finally, I wonder whether efforts with civic value always as beneficial as Shirky posits. Collaborative translation does, of course, have many positive effects (see my last post on this topic or this recent Translorial article). Yet for-profit organizations that rely on cognitive surplus to get their material translated are sliding down a steep ethical slope. Who benefits more from Facebook’s translated platforms, the community, society in general or Facebook? How is the public perception’s of translation as a professional activity affected by calls for amateurs to collaborate on translation projects? And, if crowdsourcing makes available translations that would otherwise not be produced or which would be available only after a long delay (e.g. translations into “minor” target languages), is this reward enough for the community, or do members deserve other forms of remuneration as well? These are questions that need to be addressed before we can really decide whether harnessing cognitive surplus for projects with civic value will indeed change society for the better, as Shirky contends.