Column: Cat videos aren't waste of time

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 06:40 AM

The Internet is made of cats.

There’s a song that says so (you can find it on, or just Google “the Internet is made of cats”).

If you’re on the Internet much, it’s hard to avoid coming across cute videos of cats or cute pictures of cats with cute captions on them.

The Internet also is full of things like a stop-animation video from in which someone restaged the police chase inside a shopping mall from “The Blues Brothers” but using Lego toys. Seeing it is one of those truly mind-blowing experiences that leaves you thinking, “There is so much silly stuff on the Internet.”

And that is a positive development, according to Clay Shirky, who studies the effects of the Internet on society.

There is more to this argument than cat pictures and animated plastic bricks. I will attempt to summarize, but Google the name Clay Shirky and the term “cognitive surplus” and you’ll find more, including the short lecture “How cognitive surplus will change the world,” filmed in 2010.

Shirky explains that all the silly things filling the Internet are the leading edge of people interacting and being creative rather than watching TV.

In the U.S. alone, people spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV, Shirky said in a 2012 lecture at Singularity University, an institution inside NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. That’s time during which none of those people create anything, they just sit and have advertising beamed at their eyeballs.

“There is an enormous amount of disconnected free time that we have largely chosen to spend watching TV,” Shirky said in the 2012 lecture.

That time is society’s cognitive surplus, and carving out even a tiny fraction of it for online collaboration can yield an accumulated, enormous value – including contributing to a site full of silly pictures of cats.

“The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” Shirky said in the 2010 lecture.

You might argue that if the choice is between people watching TV and people creating silliness online, there’s not really much difference.

Shirky has a response ready for that: “Even with the sacred printing press, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals.”

The higher end of use of the cognitive surplus can be seen in sites such as Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, and Ushahidi, software that was created through online collaboration to allow live, as-it-happens mapping and reporting by the public of news events, and in the creation of the Linux operating system, which initially was built by a half-dozen programmers scattered around the world who previously had no connection.

Shirky estimates that the creation of Wikipedia and all of its information amounted to about 100 million accumulated hours of time – just 0.05 percent of the time devoted to watching TV in the U.S. alone. So he then asks you to imagine what could be accomplished by the harnessing of more of that time for creative projects.

So don’t feel so bad the next time you take a short break at work to watch a funny video online. You’re appreciating a creative act.

Better yet, go do something creative online yourself. First, just find a cat.