Cognitive Surplus: Technology and Engagement

Shirky, Clay.   Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  New York: Penguin Press, 2010.  213+ pages.

I finished Shirky’s second book (for the longest time, his first book – Here Comes Everybody – was my constant recommendation to anyone who would listen).  This book is not as eye-opening as the first book, but Here Comes Everybody is a tough act for anyone to follow.  That said, Cognitive Surplus is now at the top of my recommendation list.

One of Shirky’s most effective rhetorical strategies is his use of stories to tell a larger story.  This is true in Cognitive Surplus, which begins with a wonderful story about the Gin Craze of London in the 1720s and ends with a delightful tale of a friend’s child watching a DVD movie and then suddenly leaping from the couch because she was “looking for the mouse” (212).  In between are many anecdotes that Shirky brings to life so that the reader might understand how the read/write web (Web 2.0) has provided us a space for our cognitive surplus.

This book is about the novel resource that has appeared as the world’s cumulative free time is addressed in aggregate.  The two most important transitions allowing us access to this resource have already happened – the buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the  world’s educated population, and the invention and spread of public media that enable ordinary citizens, previously locked out, to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about.  [. . .]  Understanding those two changes, as different as they are from the media landscape of the twentieth century, is just the beginning of understanding what is happening today, and what is possible tomorrow. (27)

Shirky does not look kindly on television, even as he admits to his own voracious viewing habits as a young person.  He asserts that for much of the second half of the twentieth century, we spent our cognitive surplus  watching television.  He writes amusingly of his own television viewing habits, describing them variously as a “job” and an “obligation.”  In a section titled “More is Different” from the first chapter, Shirky muses:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and they don’t?  I saw that one a lot when I was growing up.  And every half hour I watched it was a half hour in which I wasn’t sharing photos or uploading video or conversing on a mailing list.  (21)

He commits the bulk of the book to analyzing and critiquing the elements of cognitive surplus – means, motive, opportunity, and culture -  and he devotes entire chapters to each.  Throughout, he weaves the primary motives for participating: autonomy and creativity, sharing and generosity.

Looking back on this book after having read it two years ago, one of the most useful concepts Shirky introduces to me is Jay Rosen’s The People Formerly Known as the Audience.  Since 2010, this concept, which for me explains the revolutionary nature of the read/write web, has constantly been in my mind (and Rosen published this posting in 2006 – what was I doing from 2006 to 2010?).  As a writing instructor and as someone who was trained in composition and rhetoric studies as a graduate student, Rosen’s posting simply and directly challenges traditional notions of “audience.”

The final two chapters explore the potential of collaborative uses of our individual cognitive surplus, and I am particularly interested in his chapter devoted to “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic” uses.

Read the book.  If this posting doesn’t convince you, take fourteen minutes to watch this video on youtube:

 How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World

Author Michael Kuhne