The cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels


  • Bill Tomlinson University of California, Irvine
  • M. Six Silberman Bureau of Economic Interpretation



Cognitive Surplus, Fossil Fuels


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.

Author Biographies

Bill Tomlinson, University of California, Irvine

Bill Tomlinson is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, UC 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 (MIT Press, 2010).

M. Six Silberman, Bureau of Economic Interpretation

M. Six Silberman is a field interpreter with the Bureau of Economic Interpretation.




How to Cite

Tomlinson, B., & Silberman, M. S. (2012). The cognitive surplus is made of fossil fuels. First Monday, 17(11).