Review: Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky, Clay

Anyone who can use lolcats to make a relevant and provocative intellectual point is worth paying attention to. Clay Shirky pulls it off in his latest book. Here’s his point:

Let’s nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act…. The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. [p.18]

Cognitive Surplus is a follow on to Shirky’s previous book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In it, he explores the following thesis:

Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would the surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so let’s start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit – every edit made to every article, and every argument about those edits, for every language that Wikipedia exists it. That would represent something like one hundred million hours of human thought….One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. How much is it, though compared to the amount of time we spend watching television?

Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year. That represents about two thousand Wikipedias’ projects’ worth of free time annually….One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time. [pp.9-10]

Shirky takes this notion and uses it as a lever to pry beneath the surface of lolcats, the Apache project, PatientsLikeMe.com, and other examples to look for something beyond the obvious. What makes it work is Shirky’s willingness to stay in the questions long enough to see and articulate deeper linkages and possible root causes.

One of the things that makes this work is that Shirky understands technology well enough to distinguish between accidental and essential features of the technology (to borrow a notion from Fred Brooks). Where this ultimately leads him is away from technology to look deeper into human behavior and motivation.

Like everyone else who’s been paying attention, Shirky turns to the wealth of insights coming out of the broad area of behavioral economics to understand why so much of the what is apparently surprising about today’s technology environment rests in our crappy assumptions about human behavior. As he argues in a chapter titled "Opportunity" when we find new technology leading to uses that are "surprising," the surprise is located in an assumption about behavior and motivation rooted in an accident of history not a fundamental attribute of the human animal. For example, he neatly skewers both the RIAA’s and the techno-utopians analyses of Napster and concludes:

The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. [p.126]

For those of you who prefer your arguments condensed for more rapid consumption, Shirky provides one in the following TED talk

Shirky has his detractors. There are those who dismiss him as just another techno-utopian who imagines a world at odds with the practical realities of the day. At the level of a 20 minute keynote speech, that’s not an unwarranted takeaway. When you give his arguments a deeper reading, I think you’ll more likely to conclude they are worth your investment in wrapping your head around them.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus”

  1. I donít believe that Americans spend two hundred billion hours/year on watching TV. But we canít say that thatís totally wastage of time. Because I think watching television is one of the ways of relaxing after working hard whole day. It can be minimize by doing other creative works.

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