Review: Cognitive Surplus

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, NYU communications professor Clay Shirky forecasts a big increase in creativity and expression over the next few years, as people stop consuming so much television, and devote some of that time – even a small fraction of that time – to interacting with each other via social media.

Over the past century, but especially since the 1950s, innovations in technology have given us all a lot more “free” time. As Shirky sees it, television emerged at just the right time and with just the right properties to absorb the lion’s share of that newly available time. Watching TV is something people can do alone, assuaging the feelings of loneliness that came as society spread out from cities and rural communities to the disconnections and dislocations of the suburbs.

Shirky starts from the premise that the wiring of humanity “lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.”

If this scenario seems far-fetched, consider that the total amount of time spent to date on Wikipedia – every edit of every article in every language – represents something on the order of 100 million hours of human contributions. By comparison, in the United States alone, people watch roughly 200 billion hours of television every year. That’s the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedias per year, from scratch.

Shirky touches on a number of interesting themes:

  • Instead of one-way public media (like books and movies) and two-way private media (like the phone), we now communicate through two-way media operating on an ever-sliding scale between private and public.
  • By combining the size of the community with the ease of ad hoc group formation and the drastically reduced cost of coordinating action, it’s now possible to turn massive aggregations of small contributions into things of lasting value.
  • Given the right opportunities, humans will start behaving in new ways. Many of the behaviors considered permanent are only as stable as the historical accidents that caused them, and susceptible to changing technologies and practices.

I like Shirky’s insights, and his writing style. He’s clearly given a lot of thought to the implications of social media, and his real-world experience managing social media start-ups (successful and otherwise) adds authenticity. Shirky’s anthropology background helps him tease apart behaviors that are rooted in permanent human concerns such as family, autonomy, and money, yet have been profoundly altered in just a few years by the these new forms of communication.