This week we looked at collective efforts and cognitive surplus. One of the first ever efforts of a collective cognitive surplus project was the development of Linux, and alternate operating system from the then rapidly growing Microsoft Disc Operating System, commonly known as MS-DOS. From It’s beginning in 1991, the Linux project (named, begrudgingly, after its founder, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student) was designed as a free operating system that allows its users the opportunity to add, change, and edit the software by submitting suggestions to the various maintainers throughout the world. The fact that these “maintainers” still had ultimate authority on changes made still does not eliminate the fact that the system is still built on free thinking ideas and a collective cognitive surplus effort.
Perhaps the largest, most successful and most popular cognitive surplus project has been Wikipedia. Started by Larry Wales and Jimmy Sanger in 2001, this online encyclopedia has grown to over 4 ½ million articles. Comprised entirely of reader contributions, nearly anyone with internet access can create, add to, or edit articles.
Linux would be helpful if you were looking for an operating system and Wikipedia has posts on nearly every topic imaginable. I am not certain; however, if I am necessarily ready to contribute to these projects or others like them. Perhaps if there was a similar project which I could be comfortable as a “subject matter expert”. An example may be in the Electrical Distribution industry. There are many, many very specific areas which I consider myself far more knowledgeable than many who have a similar number of years of experience as I have. The reason is because in traveling throughout the country, and in fact most of North and Central America, I have seen nearly every imaginable configuration of electrical transmission and distribution scheme (though every time I say that I learn of a new odd voltage or grounded B phase system that I just hadn’t previously considered). I might also consider Power Transformers (Oil Filled) and sub-stations. Outside of that very specific area of expertise, I would probably feel the community would be better served by true experts in the field. However, if I see a contribution that I know to be false, I may feel compelled to correct that item. And therein lies the problem, at least in my eyes, with cognitive surplus projects.
Earlier in the semester we learned of Marshall McLuhan’s Theory of Technological Determinism, and during the “Print Age”, many people began to accept as true anything in print, because if someone went to the trouble and expense to print something, then it must be have been true. At least in the 15th century it seemed to make sense. But today, in the 21st century, many, many people post things online that are blatantly false, and they do so in such a manner as to intentionally mislead millions of people in the hope that their cause, business, idea, or whatever is believed, promoted, adopted and spread further. The “promise” is to add some value to a person’s life, even though so much of it is simply untrue.
I remember growing up there was a saying that “if you hear it from three different sources it must be true”. Today, a person can create multiple sources under the guise of different identities and repeat the same fallacies so many times that before too long people just accept them as to be true. Here is a great example: If you require a state issued ID in order to vote, it will discriminate against minorities. Now everyone knows that is a ridiculous statement. Every single citizen in this country has some form of ID. That is a simple fact. Yet, many politicians go on and on about how asking for ID is in some way discriminatory. Why would anyone say such a thing? Are minorities not capable of driving? Well, that is a pretty stupid statement. Are minorities incapable of attending school? Again, another very ridiculously stupid statement. The fact is that every person eligible to vote in this country has a valid ID, or if for some reason they have lost it they can acquire one in less than a couple of hours, so anyone making the claim that asking for voters to produce an ID is somehow discriminatory is simply promoting voter fraud under the guise of equal opportunity. Yet this is an example of saying something over and over, and some percentage of our population actually will begin to believe it.
That is the issue with some cognitive surplus projects. Without well adhered to checks and balances, the original goal could easily become foggy and in fact changed, similar to the old alligator and swamp story…