Book Review: Cognitive Surplus – Clay Shirky

Cognitive SurplusSubtitled “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”, this is social media theorist Clay Shirky’s second book after Here Comes Everybody, which concerned itself with the dynamics of using social tools to “organize without organizations”.

Cognitive Surplus starts with a potent historical parallel and an astonishing data point.  Early 18th century England had a “Gin Craze” as the population tried to anesthetize themselves against dramatic social changes accompanying the industrial revolution.  Shirky asserts television has played the same role over the last 50 years, absorbing the vast preponderance of free time in the developed world: “The sitcom has been our gin, an infinitely expandable response to the crisis of social transformation”.  He takes a little time to catalog television’s pernicious effects, and makes the point along the way that the asymmetric dynamic between broadcasters and passive audiences of the 20th century media was an anomaly that isn’t going to be reinstated on the Internet any time soon.

The astonishing data point arises from a television producer’s reaction to his relating the story of Wikipedia: “Where do people find the time?”  The impolitic answer of course is Wikipedia’s creators aren’t watching television.  Shirky estimates that Wikipedia is the result of on the order of 100 million hours of work by a vast number of participants.  This seems staggering until he puts it in context: Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year and “we spend roughly a hundred million hours every weekend just watching commercials.”  That tees up the book: there is a vast collective cognitive surplus available to be harnessed if we can just turn off the television.  What happens when billions of couch potatoes begin to participate, create and share collectively?

The bulk of the book is an exploration of why and how people engage in social production.  In short, he says, it is means, motive and opportunity (just like the common criminal).  He offers a bunch of examples, though open source and Wikipedia remain by far the most powerful and impactful, as well as a variety of psychological research that helps explain personal and public motivations.

There are some suggestions for how to bootstrap and manage services that harvest cognitive surplus, but mostly the book culminates in a desperate plea for “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand” experimentation.  We must keep entrenched interests from squashing new efforts, but also not listen too much to the crazy innovators as they really have no idea what the real impact of their efforts will be.

Here Comes Everybody is a little more actionable for practitioners, while Cognitive Surplus is more of a manifesto (and we love a good manifesto), but well worth the read for insight on the future of media and the new social production model that lies beyond the market or government diktat.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Cognitive Surplus – Clay Shirky

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