Cognitive Surplus is written by the author Clay Shirky. He is also a teacher at New York University, where he teaches “New Media” at the Interactive Telecommunications Program. His previous book is called Here Comes Everybody where he tackled the subject of the power of the web for groups to organize. Shirky has also written for publications like The New York Times and Wired.
My first exposure to Clay Shirky was a talk he gave about the so called problem of information overload. In the talk he explained that the problem is not really information overload. We have had an over abundance of information for centuries. The problem, he said, is a filtering issue. He explains that since the cost of publishing on the web is zero, there’s no loss if you don’t filter for quality. In traditional publishing the costs are high thus the need to filter for quality before taking that risk. In this book he writes about this subject when he gets to the history of the printing press.
My first impulse to read this book was because I wanted to hear the good news first. What I mean by that is that it was either Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows or this one. For the last couple of months, there’s been this debate going on on how the web is doing x to us. Mostly negative. How it’s robbing our attention, our ability to concentrate, etc. Now that I read Cognitive Surplus, I wouldn’t say the it has an opposing view to The Shallows. Carr’s is about psychology and the web and Shirky’s is about sociology and the web. But one is definitely viewing the glass half empty, and the other is viewing the the glass half full. While Clay Shirky is definitely a techno optimist, don’t confuse him with a social media 2.0 guru enthusiast.
If I could sum up the book with one idea it would be this: “The stupidest possible creative act, is still a creative act.” This quote comes from the first chapter of the book we’re he discusses LOLCATS. Here Shirky is acknowledging that sure, there’s a lot of crap on the web, but it’s better than having nothing. And it’s not just about a content creator making something for an audience, but about creating something to share with a community. For that purpose, the quality is secondary.
The key idea in the book though is free time and television. Television is so embedded in our culture that we don’t realize how much time we actually spend on it. Shirky started looking at this because of the frequently asked question, “Were do people find the time.” The time has always been there since industrialization and the 40 hour work week. It’s that for the last 50 plus years or so, we have spent that free time passively staring at a light emitting box. The so called boob tube. Shirky’s conclusion is that the people who have opted to watch less television have made Wikipedia possible, as well as LOLCATS.
Through out the book Shirky also answers why we’re doing this for free and what motivates people to do it. The short answer: because we can. The opportunity is there. People just don’t want to be a passive consumer anymore. They also want to create and more importantly, to share with people. Now we can. He also writes about the impact and the potential that social media can have with civic service.
This is a big deal. It’s an interesting time to be in. We still watch a lot of television, but while we’re watching it, we look up info on IMDB from our smart phones. We listen to music, but look for what people are saying and we rate them. We are no longer just an audience, we are the people formerly known as the audience.