The Age of Non-government Public Goods
By Arnold Kling
all of Wikipedia, the whole project—every page, every edit, every line of code, in every language Wikipedia exists in—that represents something like the cumulation of 98 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 98 million hours of thought.
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television.
His claim is that we have a “cognitive surplus” that participative media allow us to exploit. He then offers this Masonomist description of the process of learning:
The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you’re going. That’s the phase we’re in now.
I see a possible analogy between what Shirky argues is happening in media and what might happen in the arena of public goods. Shirky claims as individuals are willing to participate at much lower cost, and often for free, in online projects mediated by the Internet. This in turn threatens the position of legacy media.
My conjecture is that this willingness extends to public goods in general. People are willing to participate in projects that produce public goods at lower cost than the government can provide them. Moreover, people with a stake in government–employee unions, traditional politicians, and traditional media commentators, will feel threatened by this.