People in the industrial world have a great deal of free time. Clay Shirky has described this free time, considered as a whole, as a vast “cognitive surplus,” and presents many efforts currently under way to use the cognitive surplus for prosocial ends. However, the cognitive surplus came to exist largely as a result of labor–saving devices that run on fossil fuels. Many problems relating to fossil fuels constrain how people can responsibly use the cognitive surplus to address environmental sustainability and other current concerns. We suggest that an excellent use of the present cognitive surplus is to help society prepare for an energy–scarce future — that is, a future that may not be able to support the existence of a cognitive surplus at the current level.
In 2010, Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age drew public attention to the vast abundance of free time people in the industrial world enjoy (Shirky, 2010). They have, he suggests, in excess of a trillion hours per year of free time.
A 2009 report by the Council for Research Excellence and Ball State University offers that U.S. adults are exposed to more than 8.7 hours of media per day, including more than 5.8 hours per day of television (Council for Research Excellence, 2009).
Shirky’s book explores the implications of this surplus of time and intellectual energy. Beyond television, the surplus fuels an array of online activities, from the production of lowbrow humor such as lolcats to participation in distributed humanitarian activities through platforms such as Ushahidi (http://www.ushahidi.com/), which aggregates reports of human rights violations. Shirky’s idea of the “cognitive surplus” frames the abundance of free time as a collective resource that society may be able to use more effectively.
The free time of individuals, taken alone, can be used to do individual–scale things, such as taking up a hobby. For example, if a person were to give up watching television for a year, they might use that time to write a novel, grow a vegetable garden, or learn to play an instrument.
By collaborating with a few others — say, friends or neighbors — people can do small–group–scale things. For example, if that person convinced three friends to give up television as well and coordinate the use of their time, the quartet might learn to play complementary instruments and form a band together. Coordination plays a central role in making many activities possible. Without coordinating their decisions about how to spend their time, they might all learn to play the same instrument, leaving the roles of the other instruments in their hypothetical band unfilled.
The importance of coordination in collaborative projects explains how information technology makes very large projects such as Wikipedia possible. The advent of the World Wide Web, in which the tools of content production and distribution are available to a large number of people, has enabled a new form of cultural activity, called “participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006), to emerge online. Information technologies and participatory online culture enable hundreds of thousands of people to coordinate their contributions to a single project over a period of weeks, months, or years.
Distributed work is not new (King and Frost, 2002). But the wide availability and ease of use of contemporary information technologies, and the cultural practices that take advantage of them, have made participation in distributed work available to more people than ever before — and changed the kinds of ‘work’ they can participate in. Shirky writes:
The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes. The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative. If free time was all that was necessary, however, the current changes would have occurred half a century ago. Now we have the tools at our disposal, and the new opportunities they provide. 
The large–scale coordination made possible by contemporary information technologies enables humanity’s free time to be addressed in the aggregate — giving rise to the cognitive surplus, a single resource that could be deployed to particular purposes. In Shirky’s account, the development of participatory culture is actually a return to the normal state of affairs in human history. The idea that “culture” is something made by professionals — the idea of a “mass media” — is an unfortunate byproduct of a series of twentieth century technological and economic accidents. He writes:
The atomization of social life in the twentieth century left us so far removed from participatory culture that when it came back, we needed the phrase “participatory culture” to describe it. Before the twentieth century, we didn’t really have a phrase for participatory culture; in fact, it would have been something of a tautology. A significant chunk of culture was participatory — local gatherings, events, and performances — because where else could culture come from? The simple act of creating something with others in mind and then sharing it with them represents, at the very least, an echo of that older model of culture, now in technological raiment. 
Shirky sees the return of participatory culture after 50 years of mass media as basically good. We agree.
Shirky’s book, after introducing the “cognitive surplus” (Chapter 1), outlines the “means”, “motive”, and “opportunity” for the re–emergence of participatory culture (Chatpers 2–4). In later chapters he explores its possible implications (Chapters 5–6) and offers some lessons learned thus far in supporting it (Chapter 7). We find Shirky’s discussion important and relevant to the modern world. But his discussion of the cognitive surplus begins by taking the free time enjoyed by people in the industrial world as given. Given this free time, the availability of new information technologies has enabled the re–emergence of participatory culture and the possibility of addressing the free time as a single unit: the cognitive surplus. This free time, however, is not quite free. Both the free time that forms the ‘raw material’ of the cognitive surplus and the technologies and practices of coordination that enable it to be treated as a single resource rely on huge technological infrastructures. These infrastructures are largely powered by fossil fuels. In essence, the cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels.
The roots of the cognitive surplus lie in the industrial revolution. During this time, an emphasis on labor productivity — the amount of production output per unit of human labor — coupled with a stream of technological innovations led to a great increase in the effectiveness of human effort.
Hawken, et al. (1999) describe the industrial revolution as follows:
This sudden, almost violent, change in the means of production and distribution of goods, in sector after economic sector, introduced a new element that redefined the basic formula for the creation of material products: Machines powered by water, wood, charcoal, coal, oil, and eventually electricity accelerated or accomplished some or all of the work formerly performed by laborers. Human productive capabilities began to grow exponentially. What took two hundred workers in 1770 could be done by a single spinner in the British textile industry by 1812. 
The replacement of human effort by machines powered by non–human energy sources has been a central theme of economic development over the past 200 years.
In the past century and a half, in particular, fossil fuels have become the dominant source of energy in this process. Coal came to prominence in the mid–nineteenth century, followed by oil in the early twentieth century. Throughout, technologies and practices that take advantage of these fossil fuels to make human labor more effective have flourished.
The industrial revolution led to a variety of outcomes. First, it led to increased standards of living. Between 1820 and 1998, for example, U.S. GDP per capita, measured in 1990 international dollars, increased from 1,257 to 27,331, a more than 20–fold increase (Steckel, 2002).
Second, the industrial revolution led to increased free time. As Shirky describes it, “the amount of unstructured time cumulatively available to the educated population ballooned, both because the educated population itself ballooned, and because that population was living longer while working less” .
Third, the industrial revolution led to great environmental damage. Industrial technologies have relied on natural resources as input. These technologies have allowed us to turn ecosystems into material inputs, which we have transformed in turn into increased industrial capacity. Increased industrial capacity has led to increased demand for inputs, fueling an exponentially growing transformation of natural capital into industrial capital. The contemporary costs and benefits of this transformation have been unevenly distributed — poor countries have borne most of the costs and rich countries have reaped most of the benefits — but many of the costs will be paid by our descendants. The editors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example, summarized their findings (Hassan, et al., 2005) as follows:
Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.
The changes that have been made to ecosystems have contributed to substantial net gains in human well–being and economic development, but these gains have been achieved at growing costs in the form of the degradation of many ecosystem services, increased risks of nonlinear changes, and the exacerbation of poverty for some groups of people. These problems, unless addressed, will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations obtain from ecosystems.
The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century.
The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services can be partially met, but [this would require] significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way. 
The cognitive surplus arises from the transformation of many production processes from human–labor–intensive to machine–labor–intensive. When people are watching TV or editing Wikipedia, they are not doing many other things. They are not farming, weaving, or carrying water from the well. That work is being done, mostly, by machines. And fossil fuels power the bulk of those machines.
Put another way, the spare time we have is heavily subsidized by oil, coal, and natural gas. But this subsidy remains largely hidden from residents of the industrial world. It serves as a kind of “environmental overhead” — pervasive environmental costs that surround nearly everything we do.
The social and environmental costs associated with fossil fuels are diverse and often not included in the market price of the fuel. Portions of these costs may be borne by people or other organisms who are not party to the transaction. For example, if a family purchases electricity to power their home from a utility company, they pay for a fraction of the utility’s costs. But the health effects suffered by people who live near the coal–burning power plant that generated the electricity are not always included in the price. Economists call these costs “externalities.”
Many research efforts have examined the externalities of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. In 2003, for example, O’Rourke and Connolly (2003) published a comprehensive account of the social and environmental costs of the production and consumption of oil.
They divided the life cycle of oil into four parts, listing the impacts of exploration, drilling, and extraction; transport; refining; and consumption.
“On– and off–shore exploration, drilling, and extraction activities are inherently invasive and affect ecosystems, human health, and local cultures,” they write. The major impacts of the massive infrastructure required to explore for, drill for, and extract oil, including roads, platforms, pipelines, and exploratory test wells, “include deforestation, ecosystem destruction, chemical contamination of land and water, long–term harm to animal populations (particularly migratory birds and marine mammals), human health and safety risks for neighboring communities and oil industry workers, and displacement of indigenous communities.” 
Further, exploration, drilling, and extraction produces vast quantities of often toxic, and occasionally radioactive, wastes. According to O’Rourke and Connolly, “the oil and gas industry in the United States alone creates more solid and liquid waste than all other categories of municipal, agricultural, mining, and industrial wastes combined” .
Finally, exploration, drilling, and extraction are associated with a variety of health impacts; safety risks from explosions and the operation of heavy machinery; and conflict with indigenous populations whose livelihoods are threatened by incursions into their lands .
The main impacts of oil transport are due to spills from vessels, terminals, and pipelines. O’Rourke and Connolly write:
Transportation of oil results in regular oil spills throughout the world. Although large oil spills are well publicized, smaller but cumulatively significant spills from shipping, pipelines and leaks often go undocumented ... . Accidents occur along all segments of the transport system and at each point of transfer. Since the 1960s, large–scale oil spills have occurred almost every year. 
The main impacts from oil refining come from a range of emissions. “Local environmental impacts from oil refineries result from toxic air and water emissions, accidental releases of chemicals, hazardous waste disposal, thermal pollution, and noise pollution.” 
These impacts have been linked to increased cancer rates among refinery workers and residents of communities near refineries, among other health impacts .
The impacts of oil consumption — most prominently, from gasoline combustion in automobiles — are more widely known, and include air pollution, water pollution, and global climate change due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide .
While in general these externalities are not necessarily commensurable with one another — they are qualitatively different in kind and affect different groups — or with the benefits of burning fossil fuels, some analyses have estimated costs in dollars of the adverse effects from burning fossil fuels.
In 2010 for example the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies published a 500–page book on the topic, entitled Hidden costs of energy: Unpriced consequences of energy production and use (U.S. National Research Council, 2010). The Committee on Health, Environmental, and Other External Costs and Benefits of Energy Production and Consumption of the National Research Council studied the unpriced impacts — such as health effects, climate change, and infrastructure risks and security issues — of the U.S. energy infrastructure. Their study included impacts from burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, heating, and transportation.
Ultimately the Committee was forced to focus their quantification efforts mainly on health–related damages caused by air pollution, which they estimated in excess of US120 billion for the year 2005. “Although large uncertainties are associated with [these] estimates,” they write, “there is little doubt that this aggregate total substantially underestimates the damages, because it does not include many other kinds of damages that could not be quantified ... such as damages related to some pollutants, climate change, ecosystems, infrastructure, and security.” 
In 2011, an interdisciplinary team led by Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School published a “full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.” (Epstein, et al., 2011) While oil is the main source of energy for transportation, coal is the main source of energy for electricity generation worldwide (U.S. National Research Council, 2010; Epstein, et al., 2011).
Their “comprehensive review [found] that the best estimate for the total economically quantifiable costs, based on a conservative weighting of many of the study findings, amount to some USD 345.3 billion” every year. As in the National Research Council’s report, however, “these figures do not represent the full societal and environmental burden of coal.” Many damages resisted quantification; “the true ecological and health costs of coal are thus far greater than the numbers suggest.” Provocatively, the authors observed that “accounting for the many external costs over the life cycle for coal–derived electricity conservatively doubles to triples the price of coal per kilowatt hour of electricity generated”. If the market price of coal–fueled electricity reflected these costs, renewable sources of energy would be economically competitive .
Further, fossil fuels will not be available forever. Fossil fuel deposits form over millions of years, as plants capture energy from the sun, die, and are compressed under the earth across geologic time scales. As such, fossil fuels are effectively non–renewable given the rate humanity currently burns them. Therefore, it is likely that they will eventually run out. The as–yet–unutilized fossil fuels remaining in the ground have been poetically referred to as the “last hours of ancient sunlight.” (Hartmann, 2004)
The economic and social consequences of the finite nature of fossil fuels, however, will likely be felt long before they run out. The dynamics of production “peaking” have been studied extensively with respect to oil in particular.
Because oil demand tends to expand to meet supply, the rate at which oil is produced from a particular reservoir tends to increase over time as additional extraction capacity is installed. As the reservoir is drained however the extraction rate necessarily declines. Eventually the oil remaining in the reservoir is too difficult, and therefore expensive, to reach, and extraction on the reservoir ends.
The same pattern has been observed to hold for oil production in any given country, and is expected to hold for global oil production. The point of maximum extraction rate is called the “peak”, or “peak oil”. Because demand expands to meet growing supply as the extraction rate increases, consumers of oil experience a shortfall immediately after peaking. “As [global] peaking is approached,” write Robert Hirsch, et al. in the 2005 U.S. Department of Energy report Peaking of world oil production, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the “economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented” . They conclude that peaking will cause sharp increases in the cost of oil, leading to “protracted economic hardship” throughout the world . They predict that “production of large amounts of substitute liquid fuels will be required” to make up for the oil shortage, including coal liquefaction and exploitation of heavy oil and oil sands — processes that are at least as socially and environmentally damaging as current techniques for extracting, transporting, and refining conventional oil.
Oil may not be the only fossil fuel to peak. Although conventional wisdom suggests that recoverable coal reserves are quite high — on the order of 200 years of effective supply — these estimates may be unrealistically optimistic. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), for example, has reported 268 billion tons of estimated recoverable coal reserves in the U.S. alone. But the EIA, Epstein, et al. point out, acknowledges that their estimates have not been analyzed for profitability of extraction. “Depending on the resolution of the geologic, economic, legal, and transportation constraints facing future coal mine expansion,” write Epstein, et al., “the planning horizon for moving beyond coal may be as short as 20–30 years” .
The dynamics of fossil fuel prices and the development of new technologies for exploring, extracting, and refining fossil fuels make it difficult to predict the effects of peaking with much certainty. For example, on one hand, the development of coal liquefaction infrastructure could mitigate some impacts of oil peaking. On the other, it could accelerate coal peaking and exacerbate its impacts. Various experts and pundits have been predicting that peak oil is imminent for decades.
Despite the confusion, two lessons can be drawn from the wide–ranging and complex literature on the peaking of fossil fuel production. First, humanity will likely continue to burn fossil fuels for quite some time. It seems indefensible to propose a time horizon less than a few decades for a broad transition away from fossil fuels, and perfectly plausible to expect that, without substantive government intervention, they could continue to form the bulk of energy production in the industrial world for another century. Second, however, it is clear that the reserve of fossil fuels is effectively finite, and that exploiting the remaining part of those reserves will be more complex and costly — and perhaps more environmentally damaging — than the exploitation that has gone on thus far.
In the absence of an alternate energy source (solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, etc.) at a very large scale, growing scarcity of fossil fuels will have a profound impact on the cognitive surplus. If energy prices rise significantly, people will no longer engage in as many energetically demanding activities. Individuals will eat less food imported from distant locales, make transportation decisions with a greater awareness of gas prices, and revisit many other lifestyle choices. Corporations will find it more economically viable to hire people to do tasks previously done by machines, reversing the trend that accompanied the growth in energy availability since the industrial revolution. And the number of free hours people have for watching television and other media–consumption activities will likely fall, as people need to work harder to maintain the same standard of living.
Alternately, some may be unwilling to give up their free time, and may instead accept a reduction in standard of living. In this case, the energetic costs of the computational infrastructure, from the manufacture of electronics to the maintenance of global networks, will likely cause the percentage of the cognitive surplus that is spent online to drop significantly. This drop would lead to a reduction in the cognitive surplus available for online participatory culture activities.
As electronics become more expensive and demand for them drops, the incentive for computing research and development may be reduced. The lack of innovation and lack of demand may cause the steady growth of processing power and memory available on computers, known as Moore’s law, to level off and even begin to decline. If these events transpire, we may reach a point of “peak information,” where access to information no longer grows each day.
These scenarios point to industrialized civilization achieving either “peak cognitive surplus” in absolute terms (due to people working harder and having less free time), or simply “peak online surplus” (where some still have free time, but do not spend it online). In either case, the growth in the voluntary creation of online content is likely to decline significantly.
Coming back to the present day, many online efforts are seeking to enable people to live more sustainably and to address a wide spectrum of environmental issues.
Carrotmob (http://www.carrotmob.org), for example, seeks to “entice businesses to make social and environmental improvements by giving them a financial benefit for doing what you want.” The project supports a process in which one individual acts as an organizer who solicits commitments from businesses in exchange for access to a network of consumers. For example, an organizer might ask several businesses in a particular area to see which of them will commit the highest percentage of their profits on a given weekend to make their stores greener. Then, on the appointed weekend, the organizer will mobilize a community of supporters to make purchases at the store that made the highest bid.
Systems such as Zipcar, Rentalic, and Craigslist enable people to share goods and trade services, rather than unnecessarily purchasing multiple new items. These and many other systems like them are helping create a world where objects are utilized to their full potential, rather than being discarded because they are no longer of use to the original purchaser.
Prosocial games also offer social benefits by utilizing the cognitive surplus, for example by helping people learn about environmental issues and take action to address them (Ross and Tomlinson, 2010).
In addition, there are many online resources that incidentally help people live more sustainably. For example, Google Maps helps people plan the most efficient driving routes, as well as offering directions by public transit and on foot in many areas. Couchsurfing.org (http://www.couchsurfing.org/), too, supports travel with a smaller environmental footprint despite its primary goal of enabling people to have “meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.” (Couchsurfing.org, 2012) Netflix makes environmental documentaries that might otherwise lack broad distribution available to large audiences. There are many other examples of positive environmental outcomes as a result of efforts to improve quality of life or provide other non–environmental benefits.
The rise of widespread interest in environmental issues has led corporations to seek to profit from this phenomenon. While these kinds of activities may not be inherently problematic, they contribute to a growth of “greenwashing” — the marketing of products and services that purport to be environmentally sensitive without actually being very green at all.
Many of the projects described above are not guilty of greenwashing; most of them appear sincere in their motivations, and some of them help people live sustainably without even putting sustainability forward as a desired outcome. In all of these projects, though, there appears to be a lack of explicit awareness that the freedom to participate, which underlies many of these projects, has vast costs via the social and technological infrastructures on which they rely.
As peak surplus compromises the resource base on which these projects are built, their futures, and the futures of thousands of current and future projects like them, are called into question.
These issues — and the social and environmental costs of ongoing extraction, transport, refining, and consumption of fossil fuels — have profound implications for problem–solving efforts involving the cognitive surplus. The precise nature of those implications depends on your priorities and time frame.
If you care about addressing a particular problem now, and you don’t care if you're relying on systems that may be creating other problems, it’s fine to build a system that relies on ongoing use of the cognitive surplus, or on fossil fuels in general.
If however you want to address an issue over the long term, keep in mind that the cognitive surplus may not always be there, because it relies on fossil fuels.
Further, if you want to address the problem you care about without contributing to the creation or expansion of other problems, remember that the cognitive surplus is not “free”.
Because of the finite and nonrenewable nature of fossil fuels, any approach that relies on the ongoing use of the cognitive surplus, and therefore on fossil fuels, is sustainable only as long as fossil fuels are available and relatively cheap. Thus we may address a problem with the cognitive surplus satisfactorily in the present only to discover later, when the conditions of the surplus’ existence (namely, cheap fossil fuels) no longer hold, that the way we addressed the problem no longer works — and that it may have contributed to other problems in the meantime.
If industrial society can move to a renewable and socially and environmentally benign resource base, we may manage to preserve the cognitive surplus in a way such that its existence does not cause other problems on an ongoing basis.
These concerns raise the question of whether the cognitive surplus itself, as it presently exists, can be used to catalyze a broad–based shift away from fossil fuels.
As noted earlier, Epstein, et al. (2011) observed that if the full costs of coal production, transport, and consumption were incorporated into its market price, electricity from renewable sources would be economically competitive with electricity from coal. This could be a ‘lever’ in catalyzing just such a shift. In view of this possibility, one topic worth studying is how full cost accounting might be adopted by governments as an integral part of market economies, especially in regard to energy resources. There is a growing body of academic research on the “science–policy interface” — much of it focusing on environmental policy, including policy responses to climate change — that bears directly on this topic. (e.g., Perrings, et al., 2011; Briggs and Knight, 2011; Policy Research Initiative, 2008; Quevauviller, et al., 2005; Hinkel, 2011). Could participatory online projects help researchers and policymakers answer this complex question in practice?
Even if renewable energy generation capacity is increased dramatically, a transition away from fossil fuels is likely to involve significant reductions in energy usage. As Hirsch, et al. (2005) conclude, achieving this transition without great human suffering will require planning and advance action.
Participatory online projects such as the energy research archive Energy Bulletin (http://www.energybulletin.net/), the peak oil discussion platform the Oil Drum (http://www.theoildrum.com), and the alternate reality game World Without Oil (http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/) have begun to focus some of the cognitive surplus on this topic. As the cognitive surplus is a manifestation of our current energy surplus, using the cognitive surplus to prepare for a future without fossil fuels is a special case of using our current energy surplus to prepare for an energy–scarce future (Tomlinson, et al., 2012; Silberman and Tomlinson, 2010). These efforts may well be one of the most broadly beneficial, and long–lived, applications of the cognitive surplus. In engaging with these efforts, people may be able to create sociotechnical systems that serve humanity well but that do not rely on the continuing availability of the cognitive surplus.
We believe however that it is essential not to overlook the likelihood that the peaking of fossil fuel production, in transforming the structure of industrial society, may also compromise some of the advances that have been hallmarks of that society. You are likely to have your own list; ours includes (but is not limited to): the abolition of slavery; the institutionalization of tolerance toward diverse religions, or lack of religion; the growth of feminism; the establishment of minimum wage and other labor laws; the development of infrastructures for the disabled; the protection of the rights of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer persons; and the recognition that other species individually, and biodiversity collectively, are inherently worth protecting. We propose that an excellent use of the current cognitive surplus is to consider collectively how such gains may be preserved after the surplus itself is gone.
About the authors
Bill Tomlinson is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine, and a researcher at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He is the author of Greening through IT: Information technology for environmental sustainability (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010).
Direct comments to wmt [at] uci [dot] edu.
M. Six Silberman is a field interpreter with the Bureau of Economic Interpretation.
E–mail: six [at] economicinterpretation [dot] org.
The authors would like to thank Bonnie Nardi, Edward Valauskas, and anonymous reviewers for their help improving this work, and the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences and the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology for their support. This paper is based in part on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0644415 and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
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Received 21 June 2012; revised 18 October 2012; accepted 19 October 2012.
“The cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels” by Bill Tomlinson and M. Six Silberman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels
by Bill Tomlinson and M. Six Silberman
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 11 - 5 November 2012
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2014.