Friday, December 07, 2012

Invisible women 2: Cognitive Surplus

I've just read Clay Shirky's 2010 book Cognitive Surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. The short summary of the book is: since the 50's people have had more and more leisure time. Until recently that leisure time was taken up with the passive activity of watching television. The Internet has given us the possibility to use our leisure time for social and creative activities, like creating Wikipedia, engaging in online discussion, and even creating lolcats.

Yet I have to ask: how could a smart, well-read professor write an entire book about what people do with their leisure time and not address the well-known and well-documented gender inequality in time available? The OECD did an entire report on what is called "unpaid labor:"
"Most unpaid work is cooking and cleaning – on average 2 hours 8 minutes work per day across the OECD – followed by care for household members at 26 minutes per day. Shopping takes up 23 minutes per day across the OECD on average" Visualized it looks like:


(The left-hand column is minutes, and obviously not all countries are listed.  The full data is available as an Excel file.)

The Economist put it more bluntly (and I do think this image is unnecessarily demeaning, but I haven't found one with the same message that is more neutral):
If they had read Shirky's book, this fellow would have been sitting at his computer, updating Wikipedia pages or adding his cognitive surplus to a discussion group on health issues. But he still would have had more leisure time than a woman.

A social world based on "cognitive surplus" will be one that is not gender neutral. It will have more participation by males, and therefore will be socially skewed to the masculine -- at least until we have gender parity in taking care of the home, the children, the elderly, etc. That is something that I would expect an intelligent observer of society to notice. Not only notice, but to ponder: what does this tell us about the nature of the things being created with this cognitive surplus? Does this explain, in whole or in part, the masculine view of "hacking," the participation in Open Source, the gender nature of games and gaming? 

** I woke up this morning realizing something that is both not in this book but that I hadn't mentioned: the difference in leisure time and income level. I don't have any figures on that right now, but will do some investigation. My assumption is that leisure is not evenly distributed, and that the working poor have much less leisure time than the middle and upper classes. 

1 comment:

  1. Shirky was oblivious to women's reality in his previous post about how women need to brag/boast/lie about themselves to promote themselves, too (but women are disproportionately punished for supposed aggressive behavior).

    One trend I've seen lately is an emphasis on "show us your open source contributions" in job ads -- not as a requirement, but it's definitely implied as a factor in evaluating candidates. When there are systemic reasons for one group to have far less time for open source, this will impact that group, regardless of the intentions of the hiring managers to be diverse.

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