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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

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The author of the breakout hit Here Comes Everybody reveals how new technology is changing us from consumers to collaborators, unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world.

For decades, technology encouraged people to squander their time and intellect as passive consumers. Today, tech has finally caught up with human potential. In Cognitive Surplus, Internet guru Clay Shirky forecasts the thrilling changes we will all enjoy as new digital technology puts our untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last.

Since we Americans were suburbanized and educated by the postwar boom, we've had a surfeit of intellect, energy, and time-what Shirky calls a cognitive surplus. But this abundance had little impact on the common good because television consumed the lion's share of it-and we consume TV passively, in isolation from one another. Now, for the first time, people are embracing new media that allow us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind expanding-reference tools like Wikipedia-to lifesaving-such as Ushahidi.com, which has allowed Kenyans to sidestep government censorship and report on acts of violence in real time.

Shirky argues persuasively that this cognitive surplus-rather than being some strange new departure from normal behavior-actually returns our society to forms of collaboration that were natural to us up through the early twentieth century. He also charts the vast effects that our cognitive surplus- aided by new technologies-will have on twenty-first-century society, and how we can best exploit those effects. Shirky envisions an era of lower creative quality on average but greater innovation, an increase in transparency in all areas of society, and a dramatic rise in productivity that will transform our civilization.

The potential impact of cognitive surplus is enormous. As Shirky points out, Wikipedia was built out of roughly 1 percent of the man-hours that Americans spend watching TV every year. Wikipedia and other current products of cognitive surplus are only the iceberg's tip. Shirky shows how society and our daily lives will be improved dramatically as we learn to exploit our goodwill and free time like never before.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Clay Shirky

25 books245 followers
Mr. Shirky divides his time between consulting, teaching, and writing on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. His consulting practice is focused on the rise of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, web services, and wireless networks that provide alternatives to the wired client/server infrastructure that characterizes the Web. Current clients include Nokia, GBN, the Library of Congress, the Highlands Forum, the Markle Foundation, and the BBC.

In addition to his consulting work, Mr. Shirky is an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches courses on the interrelated effects of social and technological network topology -- how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. His current course, Social Weather, examines the cues we use to understand group dynamics in online spaces and the possible ways of improving user interaction by redesigning our social software to better reflect the emergent properties of groups.

Mr. Shirky has written extensively about the internet since 1996. Over the years, he has had regular columns in Business 2.0, FEED, OpenP2P.com and ACM Net_Worker, and his writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, Wired, Release 1.0, Computerworld, and IEEE Computer. He has been interviewed by Slashdot, Red Herring, Media Life, and the Economist's Ebusiness Forum. He has written about biotechnology in his "After Darwin" column in FEED magazine, and serves as a technical reviewer for O'Reilly's bioinformatics series. He helps program the "Biological Models of Computation" track for O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conferences.

Mr. Shirky frequently speaks on emerging technologies at a variety of forums and organizations, including PC Forum, the Internet Society, the Department of Defense, the BBC, the American Museum of the Moving Image, the Highlands Forum, the Economist Group, Storewidth, the World Technology Network, and several O'Reilly conferences on Peer-to-Peer, Open Source, and Emerging Technology.

Prior to his appointment at NYU, Mr. Shirky was a Partner at the investment firm The Accelerator Group in 1999-2001, an international investment group with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London. The Accelerator Group was focused on early stage firms, and Mr. Shirky's role was technological due diligence and product strategy.

Mr. Shirky was the original Professor of New Media in the Media Studies department at Hunter College, where he created the department's first undergraduate and graduate offerings in new media, and helped design the current MFA in Integrated Media Arts program.

Prior to his appointment at Hunter, he was the Chief Technology Officer of the NYC-based Web media and design firm Site Specific, where he created the company's media tracking database and server log analysis software. Site Specific was later acquired by CKS Group, where he was promoted to VP Technology, Eastern Region.

Before there was a Web, he was Vice-President of the New York chapter of the EFF, and wrote technology guides for Ziff-Davis, including a guide to email-accessible internet resources, and a guide to the culture of the internet. He appeared as an expert witness on internet culture in Shea vs. Reno, a case cited in the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Communications Decency Act in 1996.

Mr. Shirky graduated from Yale College with a degree in art, and prior to falling in love with the internet, he worked as a theater director and designer in New York. His company, Hard Place Theater, staged "non-fiction theater", theatrical collages of found documents.

Mr. Shirky's writings are archived at shirky.com, and he currently runs the N.E.C. mailing list for his writings on networks, economics, and culture.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 347 reviews
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,537 followers
November 14, 2014
The term "cognitive surplus" refers to the surplus of "intellect, energy, and time" that people have. Since most people have a 40-hour work week, there they have surplus time on their hands to do as they wish. This is a very passive activity.

In the past, many people spent time doing things like having picnics, going bowling, and other family and community activities. But when television came along, people replaced their active pursuits with television, a purely passive pursuit. Clay Shirky maintains that almost any non-passive activity is preferable.

But here, Shirky seems to go astray. He writes almost exclusively about the inter-activity of online media, social web sites, online collaborations and the like. What about all the other "active" pursuits that people do in social settings? He virtually ignores them. He is all about the internet, to the exclusion of just about everything else.

For example, I am active in several communities that had been around for years before the advent of the internet. Sure, the internet helps us to be more efficiently organized--but it is not essential to the enterprises. What about those types of activities, Mr. Shirky? Are we all about the internet, to the exclusion of everything else?

Now, to be fair, I found some of the anecdotal examples to be very interesting. I had no idea that teen-age girls effectively demonstrated in South Korea against their country's policy of importing beef (ostensibly with Mad Cow Diesease) from America. And the development of the the Ushahidi platform was instrumental for helping people report violent crimes in real-time in Kenya.

But--and this is a big but--some of the anecdotal examples cited by Shirky have absolutely nothing to do with cognitive surplus. He describes a college student who organized an online study group on Facebook. Well, that's nice, but studying is not a cognitive surplus activity for college students. Studying is part of "their job", and it is not a "free-time" activity. Just because an activity is novel and online, does not mean that it represents a use of cognitive surplus. Shirky should find some examples that are more relevant to the subject of his book!
Author 3 books338 followers
September 5, 2013
The topics in this book are wide-ranging (and Shirky's analysis polymathic and trenchant), but I've been thinking a lot about that ongoing global civil suit Professional v. Amateur lately, and, in lieu of an (amateur =P) review, I wanted to just post some quotes from the book on Professional v. Amateur without comment.

Previously, I'd been using this (in the voice of Denise, a successful professional chef) from The Corrections to frame things:
"You thought you knew what food was, you thought it was elemental. You forgot how much restaurant there was in restaurant food and how much home was in homemade."

Now I have all of this, from Cognitive Surplus Chapter 5, "Culture":
"[W]hen you can get advice about a restaurant from the aggregate view of people who've actually eaten there, the value of the critic as a source of recommendation is reduced. Other functions of the critic, such as interpreting its chef's intentions or relating it to the history of a particular cuisine, remain, but the overall value of the reviewer's work shrinks..."

"One early critical complaint [about customer reviews] was an essay called 'The Zagat Effect,' written by Steven Shaw in 2000... Shaw complained bitterly about [Zagat], focusing in particular on their ranking New York City's Union Square Cafe as number one, which he felt was unjust: '...it is patently ridiculous to rank it ahead of a dozen other places, and in particular such world-class restaurants as Lespinasse, Jean Georges, and Daniel...'"

"A common objection to the spread of shared knowledge is the need for professional skill, an idea often expressed with the observation that you wouldn't want brain surgery performed by someone who learned their craft from Wikipedia... The funny thing about this rule, though, is that we don't really need it, because it is self evident. The stock figure of the amateur brain surgeon comes up only in conversations that AREN'T about brain surgery..."

"[T]he brain surgeon analogy... invites the hearer to assume that we should always go with a professional over an amateur. But curiously, no one believes the proposition, not even the people fretting about Wikipedia-trained brain surgeons. In fact, were this preference for the professional universally applied, we would all be patronizing prostitutes—they are, after all, far more experienced in their craft than most of us will ever be. By comparison, people in love are amateurs (in the most literal* meaning of the world). But here intimacy trumps skill. For similar reasons, I sing 'Happy Birthday' to my children, even with my terrible singing voice, not because I can do a better job than Placido Domingo or Lyle Lovett, but because those talented gentlemen do not love my children as I do."

Yup, Steven Shaw is a prostitute. You heard it here first.

* "amateur - ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’"



Why popular/notorious books' popularity/notoriety adds to their value, whatever their literary merit: "Every artifact is a latent community."

From Shirky's 2009 talk at the Smithsonian: http://youtu.be/010SI6m9sfI (40 mins.)
Profile Image for Natali.
433 reviews301 followers
May 31, 2010
I liked this book less than Here Comes Everybody but mostly because I don't think Shirky needed to write another ethnography. His last book was such a complete anthropological snapshot of how we share and collaborate with the technology available to us. This book is an extension of that and, while interesting, I was hoping that he might assert a hypothesis about what we will do with this collaboration. He really doesn't.

Shirky makes the point that we use our spare time to collaborate in ways that could be for the civic betterment of society. He juxtaposes this with the ways previous generations wasted away spare time watching TV. He correctly says that we don't yet know what good will come of all of this cognitive surplus but I was hoping that he would postulate more of an educated guess, given he is one of the leading thinkers in the sociology of social media. Instead he uses his observations to give tips to entrepreneurial hopefuls in the social media space. Useful but ultimately not what I was hoping for.
Profile Image for CM.
116 reviews1 follower
August 3, 2016
I was right there with Shirky at the beginning, but as this book progressed, I got more and more turned off by some of the latent assumptions buried in his thought process. Obviously, he's a very smart guy. And obviously, he really believes that social software and the current creator-culture are good things that can be very beneficial for society. But Shirky also has some pretty rigid values of his own that he clings to while attempting to dismantle other "traditional" values. He is a firm creative-content elitist, and has a hierarchy of creative endeavors that he cannot seem to imagine subverting. He's also a data-publicity evangelist, which I am suspicious of on principle.

His treatment of fandom in particular sits poorly with me. There is an extremely dismissive tone toward what he perceives as a lesser effort, and it's clear that he only has the most cursory familiarity with what fandom is and what it can do. Shirky mistakenly asserts that fandom is solely or primarily about self-pleasure, or at best, in-group entertainment. He is, of course, wrong. But this ignorance of the topic is not the most problematic aspect of his treatment of it.

His primary contrast with fandom's creative collaboration is the collaboration of the programming community. While he does not overtly gender these two groups, he fails to understand that they are culturally gendered. His hierarchy of creative collaboration, then, is a celebration of a stereotypically male kind of participation at the expense of a stereotypically female kind of engagement. He fails to account for the fact that the programming community seems to draw a certain kind of participant not only because of participant choice, but also because women and certain minorities are active encouraged NOT to participate. There are barriers to entry in the programming community that are a key part of what makes it the way it is today. (This is not to say that the programming space lacks women and minorities, but there are serious barriers to entry into the in-group.) On the other hand, fandom is seen, rightly or wrongly, as being a heavily female space, and Shirky's dismissal of the extraordinary effort and artistry and social criticism involved in fandom may be a product of his feeling of being out-group (though I doubt he made much effort to engage).

My other major beef with the book was the focus on the "2 billion" new participants in this cognitive surplus-using culture. Access to the internet, and to the other social software platforms that Shirky fangirls over throughout his book, is limited currently to the wealthiest members of the global community. It is trickling down and becoming more widely disseminated, but as it stands, this kind of participatory opportunity is far from universal. It is heavily concentrated in the West. The emphasis on engaging the "2 billion" leaves me wondering what the other 5 billion people on the planet are supposed to do, how they are supposed to engage with the global community. Or are they? Shirky is quiet on the subject of there being merit to truly broadening and universalizing participation.

Overall, I felt the book lacked the strong call to action I was anticipating. Instead, it closes with some tips on how to make a successful social media site, I guess with the hope that the reader wants to make one that matches up with Shirky's hierarchy of values. I felt like I got a good bit of the what and the how, and the who (including the who not), but I never really gathered the why - why is cognitive surplus good? Why is social software good? Ultimately, I did not feel that the book gives a good sense of why connection is good for humanity in the abstract.

Seeing as this is by far the longest review I've ever written, though, I think it's safe to say that there is a lot of value in this book as fodder for deep thought and discussion about the aspects of modern creative collaboration. So cheers to Shirky for that!

For a much better book that addresses some of the same content as Cognitive Surplus, try Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.
Profile Image for Ron Christiansen.
647 reviews6 followers
December 21, 2012
Shirky opens up an intellectual space for his book with several crucial, almost obvious, yet often overlooked claims:

1. the current generation of young people are the first generation watching *less* TV than the previous generation
2. this extra time or cognitive surplus is often dedicated to production rather than pure consumption
3. participatory culture is a call back to the traditional past

From this crafted space he soundly argues that we should stop listening to those people lamenting the rise of the amateur--look at all the crap on Youtube, all the stupid indulgent writing on blogs, the quippy ill-formed sentences on FB and Twitter. And on this point I agree. Historically we have always been nervous about any new technology which allows mere commoners, and especially illiterate youth, to produce content.

Let the crap flood the bandwidth because the young producers are learning about design (see Ze Frank's "I know me some ugly myspace" contest/video commentary) and many other frameworks historically cordoned off for official producers of media content. This is a no-brainer for good teachers--for people to learn they must be given opportunities to practice, fail, make crap. Secondly, let it flow because one out of 100,000 (or whatever) of these productions and social connectors will be amazing, a game-changer. He sites many examples such as Ushahidi (used to track ethnic violence in Kenya) or the chromosome project and many more. My oldest son told me about Ouya, a video game platform, which allows users to create their own video games starting with the open source platform. Withing a few days my son went from a video game consumer to a producer.

To me his most important argument is that when we focus on technology we focus too much on the amazing technology itself rather than how these new technologies connect and create community. Shirkey convincingly argues that if you allow for intrinsic motivation, which he defines as an environment that allows for and promotes autonomy and competency, they will come--thousands upon thousands of users willing to dedicate time to creating and building the community.

Overall Shirkey has a more optimistic view of all this--while I agree with his overall analysis, the cynic in me says that most, if not all of these self-generating communities, will be co-opted by capitalism, purchased, converted to hierarchies and rule-based organizations. I hope I'm wrong. But I absolutely disagree with Shirkey's crystal clear distinction between consumption and production.

At one point he says that all TV watching is less creative and generous than any sort of blogging because bloggers, of course, produce something and TV watchers simply absorb. He seems to discount the many theoretical models which have illustrated active consumption such as Reader Response Theory and many others coming out of Cultural Studies.

While some TV watching may be mindless so is some blogging; watching TV, for example, can be active and engaging without an auxiliary website for fans to argue and produce their own episodes. A good old family discussion, well-placed pause to discuss a show, and the move to connect the current show to a book on the shelf demonstrate as much intrinsic motivation, autonomy and competency as any new fangled social media group. Surely it is small but these discussions can spread like viruses through simpler means--a conversation at work or school the next day. So, yes, Shirkey offers an important push back to the critiques of amateur online culture, but there's no need to overstate or discount slower old-school means of engaging the media.
Profile Image for Karin de Oliveira.
104 reviews33 followers
December 5, 2021
Leituras do TCC. Interessante para entender os motivos que nos fazem atuar na internet de forma voluntária. A abordagem está começando a ficar obsoleta perante os avanços tecnológicos e as interações sociais na internet, mas a base e análise teórica continua atual.
Profile Image for Karen.
12 reviews12 followers
August 13, 2010
Shirky picks up where he left off from "Here Comes Everybody," describing in finer grain the behaviours underlying the results of specific collective actions that have been powered by social media. His writing reads like a field guide for makers in the space, highlighting potential potholes in thinking, making it invaluable reading for those wondering how the opportunity presented by social media can be channeled towards civic action and innovation.

It's very interesting to read this book at the same time as Daniel Pink's "Drive", as both authors use the same research/evidence and general points to contribute to their arguments on different-but-related things. In Pink's case, it's to talk about how a redefining and shift in perspective on motivation can and has restructured the workplace and its relationship to individuals and paying work. In Shirky's case, it's talking about how it is restructuring individuals, their identities as autonomous citizens, and how social media enables collaboration, cooperation and coordination as such.
Profile Image for Jane Friedman.
Author 12 books1,849 followers
August 22, 2010
Covers similar territory as HERE COMES EVERYBODY. I'll be using this as a required text in my history of media course.
Profile Image for David Dinaburg.
282 reviews42 followers
February 16, 2013
At one point, Prof. Shirky accurately deploys “begs the question”; had Cognitive Surplus not already been thoroughly enjoyable, adroit usage of the most frequently misapplied logical-device-turned-idiom throughout erudition brings great joy. Idiomatically, it has morphed in the bloviating, pompous version of “raises the question” and that is, of course, terribly wrong and absolutely nauseating (beware, nauseous).

It’s not that a reader wouldn’t be able to intuit “raises the question” from a faux-intellectual “begs the question,” it’s that accurate usage—“Nowhere does Shaw spell out why preferring Union Square Cafe to Lespinasse is patently ridiculous—calling Lespinasse world-class simply begs the question,”—increases the precision of language. We already have a phrase for “raises the question.” As in, “Well, gee golly, that raises the question of whether or not I can correctly interpret the meanings of your words with any reliability.” Google ‘cognitive surplus begs the question’ and two of the first hits are reviews where the reviewer incorrectly applies “begs the question” even though it was used within the very book they are reviewing.

It would transition well if the internet or “New Media” could bear the burden for this lingual diminishment. It doesn't, though; professional status is no bellwether to correct usage. Cognitive Surplus does make much of the distinction between professional and amateur content creators, as well as the surfeit of content being produced. The erosion of the barriers to having your content displayed, regardless of what that content may be, impacts the world. If it is beneficial, benign, or destructive simply cannot be predicted:
Lolcat images, dumb as they are, have internally consistent rules, everything from “Captions should be spelled phonetically” to “The lettering should use a sans-serif font.” Even at the stipulated depths of stupidity, in other words, there are ways to do a lolcat wrong, which means there are ways to do it right, which means there is some metric of quality, even if limited. However little the world needs the next lolcat, the message You can play this game too is a change from what we’re used to in the media landscape. The stupidest creative act is still a creative act.
Those who write amateur book reviews shouldn’t throw stones at the lolcat crowd; in point of fact, goodreads seems to fall lower on the creation spectrum; it’s cataloging, networking, and recommending; no creation—not really. Even moreso, the trend for many of the labor-intensive reviewers is to drop a blurb on goodreads and link to the rest offsite; you can read their review on their own website. Why let goodreads slurp up your content and garner pageviews—advertising dollars—for your efforts?
Like the owners of YouTube, the bar owner is in the curious business of offering value above the products and services he sells, value that is created by the customers for one another. People pay more to have a beer in a bar than they do at home because a bar is a more convivial place to have a drink; it draws in people who are seeking a little conversation or just want to be around other people, people who prefer being in the bar to being home alone. This inducement is powerful enough that the difference is worth paying for. The digital sharecropper logic would suggest that the bar owner is exploiting his customers, because their conversations in the bar are part of the “content” that makes them willing to overpay for the beer, but none of the customers actually feels that way.
This refutation of digital serfdom can apply across a broad swath of the now-dated “web 2.0” ethos. Where all this time to complain about “begs the question” or write restaurant reviews or take and upload photos or edit wikipedia pages is coming from, and tentative forays into why people will spend six hours writing a review that maybe—if they're exceedingly lucky—six people will read is the bulk of Cognitive Surplus. The "where" is pretty straightforward: 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure time. Free time has become synonymous with television viewing: "Americans watch roughly two hundred billionhours of TV every year." The motivation behind what we do in when not at work is the more difficult question. “What’s hard to explain is how, in the space of a generation, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world.”

The same reasons that make it impossible to paint with one stroke all the reasons people watch TV is the same reductio ad absurdum in trying to define why people create YouTube videos of them lip syncing. "People differ. More people differ more." In rushing to define online participation, attributing singular motivation is impossible. Shirky wisely adheres, and spends much of the book describing circumstances, possibilities, likelihoods, and social steering through default settings.

Yet Cognitive Surplus still Cassandras itself:
The radicals will be unable to correctly predict the eventual ramifications [of technology] because they have an incentive to overstate the new system’s imagined value and because they lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put....[p]roponents of the new and defenders of the old can’t merely discuss the transition, because each group has systemic biases that make its overall vision untrustworthy.
In the two years since the publication of Cognitive Surplus, the ubiquity of high definition streaming video has transformed the internet from a sea of text to a mountain of video. News websites don't feature written articles, they play clips. The Weather Channel has a splash page filled with videos that autoload; it takes multiple clicks to reach the familiar excel-style weather chart. Sight+sound: “Because TV goes in through the eyes as well as the ears, it immobilizes even moderately attentive users, freezing them on chairs and couches, as a prerequisite for consumption.” TV on the internet. Old uses for new technology that went unheralded by technological radicals and media traditionalists alike.

Internet delivery services such as Netflix are paying $4 to $6 million per episode to produce their own content; Google is pumping hundreds of millions into YouTube Channels with their own created content. Why bother paying to produce if viewers are already providing the lion's share, especially if your getting it for free? "User-generated content"—a particularly heinous redundancy to further disparage, through separation, the amateur as hack—may satisfy your end user, but it surely doesn't appeal to senior staff, CEOs, or possible investors; traditionalists who pattern success from a lifetime of taking cues from broadcast and cable content providers. Who would give money to what is essentially a community theater, trusting the fickle public to make content, when you can have a professional do it, the way it is supposed to be? The way it always has been.

Current online entertainment looks less like a tug of war between cyber-utopians and the old guard than a usurpation of traditional content creation by new media providers; a coup of vertical integration that harkens back to Hollywood’s studio system. Whether House of Cards comes from Netflix or AMC, it is readily apparent that the internet has not supplanted television—nor has it democratized production of entertainment—only added some new names into the mix. An old use for new technology. A consolidation of power and influence that quashes innovation through market strangulation; different players awaiting their chance to ride the newest innovation to the top, so the cycle can repeat.

Cognitive Surplus doesn’t tell us that everything is going to be okay, or that society is going to push itself through to end up at the best possible outcome. It shows how and why some people can and do create, share, help with little regard to the traditional economic forces and fundamental assumptions about human motivation that have informed our public policies since the rise of the Chicago school of economics. From parents picking up their kindergartners from school on time, “...demonstrating that adding a price to a previously nonmarket transaction can reduce our willingness to treat each other as people we might have long-term relationships with,” to The Ultimatum Game, which has been described in nearly every book about cooperation in recent memory, policies stating that people are rational market actorshave been consistently disproved. Money does not directly correlate to behavior, neither by carrot nor by stick. The internet has been constrained its entire life by these pessimistic, mercenary, and false restrictions: as a new generation rises—unburdened by the analogue-to-digital transition and unable to comprehend media without the option of interactivity—hope springs eternal for the unshackling of the cognitive surplus described throughout this book. And if you are shaky on your Alexander Pope analyses, feel free to keep thinking that everything is going to work out fine.

Technology takes iteration; society oft seems like it can ill afford the chaos and upheaval required to revamp ideas or implement procedural fixes.
To use a historical analogy, the United States was founded in 1776, but the country that today’s U.S. citizens actually live in was founded in 1787, the year the second (and current) constitution was written. The first constitution was written when the original thirteen colonies couldn’t imagine giving up much of their sovereignty to participate in the larger federation of states, so the country in the 1770s was less a nation than a loose collection of competing entities.

By the late 1780s, the lack of mutual obligation was clearly keeping the union weak, so a new constitution was drawn up, obliging the states to contribute to national defense and forbidding them from erecting trade barriers, to name just two of the many new constraints. That constitution worked, and though it has been modified many times in the two centuries since it was ratified, the continuity between then and now is unbroken. For all the value of the 1787 constitution, though, it couldn’t have been enacted in 1777, because the states wouldn’t have been willing to yoke themselves to one another that tightly without an additional decade of experience. Groups tolerate governance, which is by definition a set of restrictions, only after enough value has accumulated to make the burden worthwhile. Since that value builds up only over time, the burden of the rules has to follow, not lead.
Once the manufactured schism between “real world” and “cyberspace”—a distinction built by people who watched the internet come into existence, as opposed to those who have no frame of reference to a world without it—fades, people might be ready to “yoke themselves to one another” tightly enough to treat people you pass on the internet like people you pass on the street. Internet life is real life and the imaginary distinction between the two creates space for people to avoid internalizing their actions when they troll, grief, or shame someone else just 4 the lulz. It is damaging to pretend we are somewhere different when on a computer. It turns, again, on the precision of language to help overcome a concept that is outdated, ineffectual. The internet is a communication tool like any other, and to imbue it with special properties because we have given its usage a unique name simply begs the question.
Profile Image for Jay Cruz.
110 reviews12 followers
September 28, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 9 books320 followers
February 4, 2017
Clay Shirky is a wide known professor of media and great defender of internet based social technologies. The ideas presented in this book are at some points interesting and relevant, because they fight against the attacks these kinds of technologies always have to face when they emerge. However in doing that, and in such a short book, Shirky takes too much lightly the social aspects of life.

In short the cognitive surplus here talked about is the time you spend in the internet interacting, sharing and creating, instead of standing in your sofa watching television. The problem with this approach is that it forgets that people do not always want to interact, neither share, and less create. We are defined by a set of moods and behaviours, that change throughout the day, the week, or even month.

Because when you've worked hard for an entire day, at the end of the day it rests you too little energy to keep pushing outwards yourself. Because one thing that Shirky never talks about is the economics behind all these creative production behaviours. All the examples given by Shirky work around free models, depending on having people that can support their free time to create and share, through other jobs in their lives.

On the other side, creating and creating self-realises ourselves, however we can't create without consuming. Assuming that everything we touch will have a bidirectional communication paradigm, is far from truth. And the question is not of being digital natives or not, the question is simpler, interaction is a different state from introspection.

Anyhow Shirky touch a lot of interesting ideas about the creative society, and the new possibilities created by the internet communication platform. Getting immediate feedback to our creations can not only maintain our motivation to keep creating, but can also help in the learning process, finding better creative paths to pursue, insisting and repeating, adding new ideas, mixing old ones.

The new creative technologies opened complete new ways for anyone to try wide ranges of activities and choose from experiencing them what to follow. In a world of too many choices, being able to experiment without investing too much effort, is highly important, because it can help people find their own hidden talents.

In the end the subject discussed, has not only one approach or one answer neither a right stand, as Shirky states, "Proponents of the new and defenders of the old can’t merely discuss the transition, because each group has systematic biases that make its overall vision untrustworthy". We're living this change in our society now, and in some years when we look back we'll for sure laugh about a lot of our naive ideas and fearful thoughts.
Profile Image for Dave Emmett.
131 reviews29 followers
July 14, 2010
This book picks up right where Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations left off, both in content and in awesomeness.

I would say this is right up there for one of the best books I've read this year.

A few of the ideas that resonated with me:

- Many of the things we take for granted as a culture are merely 'accidents of history'. That large corporations have traditionally been the best way to organize people was more of a result of the tools of the time than an inherent need in society. As we develop new technology, most of these accidents are being resolved, which is destroying industries that were created to solve those problem (see Newspapers, Magazines, etc...).

- More of an idea from Here Comes Everybody, but one that is built on here, is the concept that "More is Different". Both of Chris Anderson's books are really about this topic, and I think figuring out just how different things become when they become abundant is going to be one of the big challenges of our time.

- That lolcats represent a desire within all of us to participate. As he says in the book:

"When you see people acting in ways you don't understand, you may ask rhetorically, Why are they behaving that way? A better question is this: Is their behaviour rewarding a desire for autonomy, or for competence? Is it rewarding their desire to feel connected or generous?"

Lolcats taps into a desire people feel connected and it also allows for people to exert autonomy (anyone can do it, you don't need permission to put text on a cat picture). When you look at it that way, it's far more surprising that people will sit and stare at a glowing box for hours than it is that people like funny cat pictures.

- we'll get a lot of lolcats-like participation automatically with the creation of new technologies and methods for sharing. The challenge for those of us who design is to use these same technologies to create civic value; to tap into people's desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves in order to make society as a whole better.
Profile Image for J.D. Lasica.
Author 7 books43 followers
September 13, 2010
Clay Shirky is a mas­ter at bring­ing mean­ing to the star­tling cul­tural and tech­no­log­i­cal changes whirling through our lives. In Here Comes Every­body, Shirky pro­vided con­text the rev­o­lu­tion that is turn­ing pas­sive office work­ers into take-charge design­ers of their busi­nesses’ cor­po­rate des­tinies. In his follow-up, Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus, he probes a bit deeper into what is pro­pelling for­ward our indi­vid­ual cre­ativ­ity and the impulse to share and con­tribute to a col­lec­tive out­put — what he calls “cog­ni­tive sur­plus” (a term not likely to roll off the tongues of the young peo­ple lead­ing the charge).

The book starts off pow­er­fully with a fas­ci­nat­ing look at the Gin Craze of 1720s Lon­don. Who knew that his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels could be drawn between that era and our own times? (“The sit­com has been our gin,” Shirky tells us, skirt­ing Steven Johnson’s argu­ments that tele­vi­sion series have become increas­ingly smart.) “The har­ness­ing of our cog­ni­tive sur­plus allows peo­ple to behave in increas­ingly gen­er­ous, pub­lic, and social ways, rel­a­tive to their old sta­tus as con­sumers and couch pota­toes,” he writes What’s changed is that “now we have the tools at our dis­posal,” an aston­ish­ing array of “flex­i­ble, cheap, and inclu­sive media” and plat­forms that offer us “oppor­tu­ni­ties to do all sorts of things we once didn’t do.” (Side note: I wrote about the per­sonal media rev­o­lu­tion in my 2005 book Dark­net.)

Shirky includes some amaz­ing sto­ries about the power of the new social tools — for instance, he talked about the Pink Chaddi Face­book cam­paign on stage at Per­sonal Democ­racy Forum in June. I wish the book had given a more thor­ough look at some of the ground-breaking uses of social media for social good, the crowd­sourc­ing phe­nom­e­non, review shar­ing sites and the bur­geon­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive approaches to build­ing online com­mu­ni­ties rather than lead­ing us down the now famil­iar ter­rain of fan fic­tion and file shar­ing. Still, the bot­tom line is this: “Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus” is a must-read for any­one inter­ested in the causes and under­pin­nings of the changes that have turned the medi­a­s­phere on its head and empow­ered the dig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion to bypass tra­di­tional insti­tu­tions and cre­ate a DIY approach to cul­ture and communication.
Profile Image for Sara.
65 reviews
January 13, 2019
Shirky writes about society and how we use our spare time, and the ramifications of our choices when we choose to create rather than just consume. (Or rather when we are presented with the opportunities to create rather than consume.)

This book has single handedly put me off watching television.

Shirky does make some generalised statements and does sometimes make controversial ones. Overall though, it is a very good read. I did zone out a couple of times when he goes a bit into theory, but the mix of anectodes and examples helps to bring you back in.

I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially those who are using social media in a professional capacity or whose business has been impacted by the drastic changes happening in the way we communicate.
Profile Image for Kylie.
1,071 reviews10 followers
March 31, 2014
I found this a fascinating read. He talks about how now, with the combination of surplus time in society (all time that has previously been spent in watching television) plus new opportunities to share and create online (think Wikipedia, Apache, online charities, couchsurfing.org, meet up.com, pickupal etc.) that there are now amazing ways to use our cognitive surplus for public/civic good. Obviously he's talking to readers on the other side of the digital divide, employed people with surplus time and money. He says that people are no longer satisfied to be merely passive consumers of media. Given the opportunity to interact and to create, people prefer that. Gone are the days when only publishers can publish and only organizations can organize. Also, cyberworld, now that so many of us are on it, is no longer separate from the real world. It is part of it. This book crystallized many things I've already been thinking--as I belong to many online/real world communities and I was already in awe of the potentials there. Reading this book made me really excited about the potentials of online sharing/networking and publishing.

Profile Image for Naomi.
1,385 reviews275 followers
February 14, 2011
Shirky is one of those educators and social commentators people involved in organizations ignore at their peril. He describes a number of common pitfalls that relate to an old information and media economy and how changes are already here that invite people to connect with each other around what they love, share and produce to different social goods, and break past gatekeepers of culture and risk. He also describes what makes some of the communities and cultures exciting as they emerge from our changes in technology. His work is influential, but it is influential because we who are participating in these heart-centered organizing communities find that what he’s describing resonates. The final part of the book posits some practices for approaching the power and possibility within these technological changes for human communities of the not-very-distant future, such as later this afternoon?
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,825 reviews283 followers
May 1, 2011
We live in amazing times. For the majority of those of us who live in America, we have vast reservoirs of free time.

But how do we choose to use that free time? Sadly, for the last fifty years, we have spent most of it passively watching television, watching television to the exclusion of other more social, more fulfilling activities. Last year, in fact, Americans watched about two hundred billion hours of television. And, even more sadly, studies show that those who watch tv are less happy, more overweight, and less social.

Shirky begins his book with this information, but he does have happier news to report: Americans are gradually beginning to turn off the tv in favor of other, more interactive activities. Shirky looks with great hope at the new social media that allows users to accomplish big social projects in easy ways.

A book that is definitely worth reading.

Profile Image for Ruth Seeley.
249 reviews21 followers
July 9, 2011
The three-star review reflects my frame of mind while reading this rather than the book's actual quality. It's good; puts a lot of what's happening with social and not-so-social media into context and, more important, uses global examples of which we haven't all heard already (part of the problem with any book that deals with the age of global connectivity is the domination by Americans and their ethno-cultural-centricity when reporting on what works and what doesn't - some of us will never indulge in the Zappos customer service experience and it's time someone acknowledged that, which Shirky does).
Profile Image for Chad Olson.
65 reviews3 followers
July 22, 2011
The main point is excellent. When dealing with change we seek relief. In the last half century it was TV. We watch billions of hours a year. No longer being forced to be consumers because of lower barriers to creativity and public expression, possibilities are limitless for what we do in groups and communities.

This could have also been written as a couple of essays; several examples have been covered better elsewhere.
Profile Image for Andy Gagnon.
316 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2010
This was, surprisingly, a poorly written book. In discussing social media and other internet technologies, the author makes nonsensical arguments and uses weak examples from history. I read a lot of non-fiction books and this book does not hold a candle to them. Read 'Crowdsourcing' by Jeff Howe for a better discussion of this topic.
Profile Image for Andy.
5 reviews3 followers
November 29, 2018
Interesting book. It has made me start thinking about better ways to spend my cognitive surplus.
435 reviews16 followers
November 14, 2010
I really enjoyed this book at first, but as I got farther into the book, it seemed slow and lacking in content.
Profile Image for Guilherme Smee.
Author 20 books112 followers
July 12, 2019
Olá! Seja bem-vind@ a mais um episódio de "livros para os legais da turminha citarem e se amostrarem". O que é uma grande parte desses livronhos da moda estadunidenses. Eles funcionam assim: ao invés de abrir o livro ou o capítulo com uma anedota, para depois explicar as suas teorias, eles enchem, abarrotam os livros com anedotas. Essas historinhas pontuais que, se você for cool e descolado quem nem o autor, provavelmente já aconteceram com você. E você vai ao mesmo tempo se sentir de preferência bem cool e espertinho. Essas histórias tem que ter uma condição: prazo de validade. Daqui a dez anos não vão servir para ninguém, só para mostrar como são antenados hoje. Daqui dez anos ninguém vai saber o se importar com o que foi contado como anedota neste livro, mas sim nas pequenas e rápidas teorias desenvolvidas sobre a cultura da participação. Mas um livro que foi feito para agradar os "legais da turminha" hoje, não é livro pensado com a perenidade que esse tipo de publicação deve ter, ainda mais sendo uma publicação do tipo "teórico/não-ficcional" conforme se propõe ser. Uma pena. Seria mais legal se se levasse mais a sério. =(
Profile Image for Tiffany.
13 reviews7 followers
September 14, 2020
I originally read this book because it was required for my graduate level Information Communities course. That being said, this was a book that I found actually quite interesting and filled with various comments on today's people that I had never really considered before. The change from TV viewers to active participants in a socially open world was something I had never considered (having grown up during a time where that socially open world was hitting a large stride).

While I was required to read this book for my course I was not required to enjoy it or find it interesting. It was written in a way that made the content easy to understand and quite enjoyable. There were moments of realization (Ah Ha! Moments) and moments where I had to stop and think a bit more about what was in front of me. Overall, a book that I am happy to have read.
10 reviews
March 9, 2022
The title is a overall portrayal of the lives of many young adult, having a surplus of time, intellect and energy levels but unfortunately spending too much of it on consuming technology entertainment. Rather than continuing to be a constant consumer, let that surplus of cognitive resources be placed onto building connections and creating a healthier community around oneself. Clay argues that this alternative will create deeper creative collaboration and experiences between people to people. For those readers who are looking for motivational change and higher productivity in their lives, this book is one to drive you towards that direction.
1,262 reviews10 followers
January 5, 2019
It wasn't what I expected, and I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's books in that it discussed a variety of situations or events as examples of changes in thinking. It gave a view of changes in technology and thinking and memory in the context of a long period of time so we can all feel better about where we are now even though the pace of change or "progress" has certainly increased. I imagine that most generations feel like it's all going to heck in a handbasket at some point, which is comforting.
54 reviews1 follower
June 24, 2019
As the title suggests, this book is about the recent relative abundance of "cognitive surplus" the world has. In other words, we have enough time to dedicate five hours a day on average to watching TV. What is that? Well, it's effectively low transaction-cost social pacification - a surrogate friend network, just sit down and plug in. We tend to dramatically underestimate the creative ways that new technology might be used, from pointless memes, to truly transformative technologies.
Profile Image for Alex.
2 reviews3 followers
March 23, 2017
Shirky shares lots of great insights around human behavior digging into their intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and to what extent they affect their decisions more specifically around how they spend their surplus/free time. Despite extensive examples, some from well ran studies, I still feel a lot of what he shares are his opinions (informed I should add, he's a smart guy) and to a degree still require some quantification. While reading this book, stay objective and use it as a platform to think around how our motivations relate to the use of knowledge and free time with a goal of having more impact in dramatically improving our lives as a society
June 4, 2017
The main premise that Clay Shirky makes is human beings have moved from a place where they spend most of their free time consuming to a place where we can both produce and consume. It's inspiring to think about the possibilities that collective intelligence provides. Digital technology is making collaboration possible on a large scales and anyone who wants to be involved can.
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