Home > Books, The New Media, Web/Tech > Some Thought on Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Some Thought on Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus


I downloaded onto my iPad – via the Kindle application – a copy of Clay Shirky’s Congnitive Surplus (New York 2010).  This book has receive a good bit of attention on the interwebs, in large part because Shirky is unapologetic about the potential of the internet and particularly the potential of the internet for good.  In an era where one’s status as a pundit almost depends upon a certain cynical view of the world, this book is refreshing and positive.

In short, Shirky argues that the internet provides an outlet for surplus energy that the prosperity of the second half of the 20th century has made available to us.  The rise in prosperity has allowed residents of the West, in particular, to enjoy increasing amounts of free-time and leisure.  Shirky contends that the number one use of this leisure time over the last 60 years has been watching television.  Watching television is solitary, somewhat anti-social, and, most importantly, passive.

The rise of the internet has begun to slowly encroach on the dominance of television.  Unlike TV the internet is social, provides a platform for both passive consumption and active production of media, and encourages the formation of communities with shared interests.  The dynamic character of the web as a social platform functions to channel energies previously locked away in in the passive relationship between the individual and the television.  The web has already begun to channel the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the West’s recent prosperity, but hitherto squandered through passive and more or less solitary leisure-time activities.  Shirky’s best example of this is Wikipedia which appeared out of the many moments of leisure enjoyed by tens of thousands of individual contributors.  The result is a testimony to the aggregate knowledge of global community of individuals which prior to the internet would have found a singular, intellectually substantial expression.

While this is cool thesis, it also caused me to think about a few things:

1. I am not convinced that the “cognitive” activity that Shirky associates with the internet comes directly from surplus time spent in front of the television.  It’s a great idea, but a relatively unsophisticated argument.  First, people always used some of their free time in productive, social ways.  Whether it is membership in a community organization, work with a church or other religious group, or serving as an elected official or a volunteer, the cognitive surplus created by economic prosperity poured innumerable areas of social and community life.  As the internet allows for communities to extend beyond the institutional and social confines of traditional, place-based communities, surely some of Shirky’s apparent “cognitive surplus” comes at the expense of these other, more traditional forms of community and social organization.  At the same time, there are those who suggest that the rather diffuse creativity on display on the internet comes at the expense of more economically productive pursuits.  The individuals who produce LOLCats for example might otherwise be watching television, but also might be reading a book, working, learning or refining a skill.  I am all for these profoundly democratic expressions of creativity, but I’d be reluctant to argue that television and the internet form a kind of zero-sum dyad.  The arguments for the evils of the internet, in fact, tend not to be arguments for the watching of television, but rather arguments that the internet undermines more rigorous, local, focused, and ultimately socially responsible uses of time and talent.  Shirky does little to undermine these critiques.

2. The notion of channeling surplus is always appealing, but what really matters is how that surplus (cognitive or otherwise) is channelled.  The downside of the unfettered and limitless nature of the internet is that it can minimize the impact of a small contribution while still giving the individual the sense of contributing to something larger.  (And I say this a blogger who regularly devotes 4 or 5 hours a week launching my two-cents into the void, and with the understanding that these 4 or 5 hours could be spent polishing up a lecture, reading another, important, argument, reading a graduate student’s paper just that much more carefully, or any number of professionally and socially responsible (impactful) activities).  The radically democratized space of the internet is the most efficient venue for all forms of surplus.  The “eat local” movement provides a nice model here.  Just eating locally produced foods is not a sure-fire solution to ecological, economic, and ethical problems facing large scale food production in a globalized economy. In the same way, the shear scale of the internet presents significant problems for the efficient use of specialized surplus.

3. Finally, this is the first book that I’ve read cover-to-cover (so to speak) on my iPad.  The most interesting aspect of this experience (aside from the fact that the iPad is a very nice tool for reading a book) is that I could where other people highlighted passages in Shirky’s book.  Slight, dashed underlines showed me commonly annotated passages and clicking on the passages indicated how many people underlined that particular text.  Here is a great example of Shirky’s of how the internet takes the solitary act of reading and annotating a text and turns it into a global activity with numerous participants creating a running commentary.  While at present (as far as I can tell) the Kindle application only allows readers to share underlining, it would be remarkable in the future for readers to share margin notes, comments, and even links to other passages in other books.  The aggregate of these activities would instantly turn any book into a critical edition.


Categories: Books, The New Media, Web/Tech
  1. July 30, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Enjoyed your summary – seems right on to me. I also love the bright side to the inexorable tech tide and the antidote to hand-wringing about kids today.

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