The graphic above got me thinking about all the brainpower out there, just watching a screen and wondering which contestant might next be kicked off which show, while multitasking at all the various things which daily life requires of us beyond sleeping and eating. The graphic was inspired by the book Cognitive Surplus, by Clay Chirky.
There is a solid movement in research and problem-solving that puts to use the social networking of modern technology in collaborations to confront specific scientific challenges. Scientific inquiry has always been collaborative. If a few innovators have worked in solitude, most inquiry is the result of a ball set in motion which then gathers the bulk of others’ contribution as it rolls along a given trajectory of investigation. But until recently, the means of sharing a problem or possible solution, and in particular, the means of publishing problems and solutions, has taken place on a narrowly-defined path involving gatekeeping academic journals and research hubs.
Several alternatives have developed over the past years. A New York Times article from last year delves into this topic in detail, and points out some of the benefits and pitfalls of this approach.
Among the benefits: More eyes on any given problem, new approaches, massive data collecting potential, universal availability of solutions as well as problems.
Among the pitfalls: The same issues that vex users of all current media. A lack of oversight, a lack of confidence in the material available, disorganization, and what strikes me as the two largest hurdles, challenges in monetizing the process (either in terms of research funding or publication), and a lack of singular professional recognition for those solving a problem. There’s always that bugaboo of intellectual property with which we humans contend.
Still, this is a fascinating way forward. I think, though, that the process hasn’t yet gone far enough in its scope inclusiveness. There are a couple of projects out there for ‘citizen scientists’, where non-professional observers can go and enter data (birdwatching, star gazing, etc.) much in the way other online sites might log all the live blues clubs in a given region, or crowdfund a project, or crowdsource a petition. This is still a nascent method of dealing with information and action.
What might happen, for example, if we turned everyone’s attention – everyone with access to the collective process – to one single problem at a time? Some big, pressing problem in a given region that really needs solving.
The collaborative method could be used to ‘crowdfocus’ all manner of cognitive surplus on that problem like a lens being used to spark a fire.
A few collaborative hubs:
PLOS – Public Library of Science