100m Hours of Thought

There's a powerful meme doing the rounds at the moment online, linking gin with sitcoms, TV and the wikipedia, put forward by academic Clay Shirky.

It proposes that TV sit-coms for the last 50 years have served largely the same role that gin did during the industrial revolution, and that interactive, collaborative media (like the wikipedia project) are roughly analogous to the formation of the welfare state infrastructure set up during the same period. In the context of this blog it's worth a read, but if you're short for time, here are the main points:

The critical technology for the industrial revolution, was gin. The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and wrenching that the only thing society could do to cope for a generation was drink itself into a stupor. Once everyone had woken up from this collective bender, people began to see all these people together as a resource to be harnessed, rather than merely a problem. a civic surplus. Public libraries and museums were built, and education was expanded, to use this surplus productively.

In the twentieth century, the sit-com served much the same role as gin. After the world wars, a series of demographic changes had occurred (higher life expectancies, higher incomes, more people working 5 day weeks), meaning that people suddenly had more spare time than they didn't quite know what to do with. So they mostly used it to watch television, and the sit-com worked as a cognitive heatsink, to dissipate all the excess thinking that might cause society to overheat. Only now, in the twenty first century are we waking up from the same collective bender, and realising that there's this massive cognitive surplus that's been masked by television for the past 50 years, and it can be used for more than just watching Desperate Housewives.

This gets more interesting when we start putting some figures into this theory. Outlining his theory Clay Shirky points to the Wikipedia project:

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project - every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in - that represents something like the cumulation of 100 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 100 million hours of thought.

Now compare that figure to the time spent watching television:

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. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus.

That the Wikipedia project, and a plethora of social networking sites exist suggests that this surplus can be used for more than just watching TV:

It's illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn't have imagined existing even five years ago.

Our generations have grown up with television as our dominant medium. We've learnt to make some assumptions about media - that the default is passive, and follows a broadcast model; where if there is interaction, it's usually limited to pressing a single button in on screen polls. But the generations growing up now have a whole different set of assumptions about media; that they should be free to interact, modify, and build on it, and different idea about how they want to spend their cognitive surplus.

So far, we've been looking at US figures; but looking at global cognitive surplus available gives us a sense of the scale we're dealing with here:

The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I don't know about you, but 100 projects the size of Wikipedia each year sounds like a pretty big deal to me.

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Today's immigration figures show why the net migration target should be scrapped

We should measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact.

Today’s net migration figures show, once again, that the government has raised expectations of tackling migration and failed to deliver. This is a recipe for disaster. Today’s numbers run far in excess of 300,000 – three times over what was pledged. These figures don’t yet reflect the fallout from Brexit. But they do show the government needs to change from business as usual.

It has been the current strategy, after all, that led the British public to reject the European Union regardless of the economic risks. And in the process, it is leading the government to do things which err on the side of madness. Like kicking out international students with degrees in IT, engineering or as soon as they finish their degrees. Or doubling the threshold for investor visas, and in the process bringing down the number of people willing to come to Britain to set up business and create jobs by 82 per cent. Moreover, it has hampered the UK’s ability to step up during last year’s refugee crisis - last year Britain received 60 asylum applications per 1,000 people in contrast to Sweden’s 1,667, Germany’s 587 and an EU average of 260.

The EU referendum should mark the end for business as usual. The aim should be to transition to a system whose success is gauged not on the crude basis of whether overall migration comes down, irrespective of the repercussions, but on the basis of whether those who are coming are helping Britain achieve its strategic objectives. So if there is evidence that certain forms of migration are impacting on the wages of the low paid then it is perfectly legitimate for government to put in place controls. Conversely, where flows help build prosperity, then seeing greater numbers should surely be an option.

Approaching immigration policy in this way would go with the grain of public opinion. The evidence clearly tells us that the public holds diverse views on different types of migration. Very few people are concerned about investors coming from abroad to set up companies, create jobs and growth. Few are worried about students paying to study at British universities. On the other hand, low-skilled migration causes concerns of under-cutting among the low paid and pressure on public services in parts of the country that are already struggling.

The first step in a new approach to managing migration has to be to abolish the net migration target. Rather than looking at migration in the aggregate, the aim should be to measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact. In the first instance, this could be as simple as separating low and high skilled migration but in the long term it could involve looking at all different forms of migration. A more ambitious strategy would be to separate the different types of migration - not just those coming to work but also those arriving as refugees, to study or be reunited with their families.

Dividing different flows would not only create space for an immigration policy which was strategic. It would also enable a better national conversation, one which could take full account of the complex trade-offs involved in immigration policy: How do we attract talent to the UK without also letting conditions for British workers suffer? Should the right to a family life override concerns about poor integration? How do we avoiding choking off employers who struggle to recruit nationally? Ultimately, are we prepared to pay those costs?

Immigration is a tough issue for politicians. It involves huge trade-offs. But the net migration target obscures this fact. Separating out different types of immigration allows the government to sell the benefits of welcoming students, the highly skilled and those who wish to invest without having to tell those concerned about low skilled immigration that they are wrong.

Getting rid of the net migration target is politically possible but only if it is done alongside new and better targets for different areas of inward migration – particularly the low-skilled. If it is, then not only does it allow for better targeted policy that will help appease those most vocally against immigration, it also allows for a better national conversation. Now is the time for a new, honest and better approach to how we reduce immigration.

Phoebe Griffith is Associate Director for Migration, Integration and Communities at IPPR