Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Cognitive Surplus

BOOK REVIEW  by Emmanuel RUFI  •  Published 03.04.2011  •  Updated 04.04.2011
Clay Shirky signs here a brilliant work in which he elucidates the mysteries of the digital revolution. Optimistically, he believes that digital practices enable the expression of our creativity and generosity.

Title: Cognitive Surplus

Subhead: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Author(s): Clay Shirky

Editor(s): Allen Lane

Release Date: 01.07.2010


"Where do people find all that time?"

According to Clay Shirky, professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and Internet guru, the world has transitioned into a new era.

For the first time in decades, the younger generation watches less television than their parents did. Today in the United States, the 300 million Americans consume 200 billion hours of television every year. For comparative purposes, a mere 100 million hours of human production was enough to create the free and participatory encyclopedia Wikipedia. (Note: founded by Jimmy Wales in 2001, Wikipedia has now reached more than 15 million articles and 346 million monthly readers with 267 editions in as many different languages.) 

With the time spent watching television, Americans alone could create 2,000 projects like Wikipedia each year – so let’s imagine what we could do in a world which now counts more than 2 billion internet users and 5 billion mobile connections.
If television has captured the lion's share of leisure time in developed countries in recent decades, a fraction of that time means billions of hours. The time the new generation has decided to spend no longer watching television passively but acting, participating, socializing on the Web, is precisely the author’s "cognitive surplus": a wealth of hours that society could use to contribute to useful and rewarding projects.

That is the thesis Clay Shirky develops in his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Thanks to the opportunities offered by new technologies, the younger generation now has the means to express its generosity and creativity through common and useful projects. 
And for those who refuse to believe that humans have a natural tendency to leave their couch and remote control to accomplish great things, Clay Shirky responds that this is already underway, and provides many examples to prove so. 
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The ‘publish’ button

On July 7, 2005, when several bombs exploded in London's subway and buses, the government announced that the incident could have been caused by a power surge. Eighty minutes later, 1300 blogs had already published posts, videos or pictures showing how powerful the explosions had been, proving that the blasts were of terrorist origin. Two hours after the accident, the British government apologized for its mistake and confirmed that it was indeed a terrorist attack. 
"The new tools have not caused those behaviors, but they have allowed them," analyses Clay Shirky, and if so many blogs announced the London bombing attacks before the authorities did, this was not because blogs inspired people to share what they know but because it gave people tools to do so, without cost and instantaneously, via the “publish” button.

Do not be led to believe that the need to speak out publicly is anything new, the author recalls; this need "has always existed and long before Gutenberg invented the printing press." If past generations did not express their opinions as much, this is not because they did not feel the urge, but rather, because they did not have the tools to do so. 

Other examples are used to support the thesis of the author. National Book Award winner writer Maxine Hong Kingston thanked the Open Salon platform because it enabled her to publish an article on Obama that no newspaper would agree to publish. Teenage fans of a South Korean boys’ band called through the fan platform for a large demonstration against the importation of U.S. beef in South Korea; non-politicized, the demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands, day in and day out, until the government yielded. 

Through these examples, Clay Shirky shows that digital tools are, first and foremost, vectors of freedom and cohesion, following with the logical conclusion that “digital technologies have become critical to coordinating human contact and real world activity” and to enabling humans to meet with their profound need to express in public. 

"The old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history”: suddenly a button marked ‘publish’ appeared everywhere, giving everyone the opportunity to express themselves in public – and  of course, people seized this opportunity. 
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People you don’t know make your life better for free

Why do Wikipedia’s 90,000 world-wide contributors give so much of their time to participating in the development of the encyclopedia, although they receive no compensation? What motivated the brightest computer scientists to develop the free software Apache? Why have ‘grobanites’ (singer Josh Groban’s teenager fans) invested so much effort and money to manage and finance the charity they created (Note: this teenage organization managed to raise $150,000 in donations for charity, a donation made on behalf of Josh Groban as a birthday gift to the star)? 
To puzzle out the motivations of these volunteers, Clay Shirky uses the theories of human motivation and scientific experiments showing that money is not a motivator. On the contrary, when money is offered as a reward for voluntary work, the average number of hours that the volunteer assigns to work on the project declines.
 Self-satisfaction, feelings of autonomy and competence provided by these common and useful projects are the main motivations that lead to those worthwhile behaviors. The satisfaction of doing something useful for society, like participating in the Josh Groban Foundation, or the act of learning, like participating in the drafting of a Wikipedia article,  justify the time spent on it. 
Similarly, the sense of belonging to a community is central to motivating users. Thus, initiatives such as PickupalIdealistKiva or even Harrypotterfanfiction are examples of communities that gather people around shared passions, values or lifestyles. 

Obviously some web-based initiatives are not as useful as Wikipedia, Apache, or the Grobanite’s Foundation can be. The author cites website as an example of what happens when our cognitive surplus turns into "the stupidest possible creative act". On this website, hundreds of photos of cats are published every day, each one illustrating a story devised by the user. Clay Shirky considers these initiatives as silly, but nonetheless, he reckons that they are worthwhile in the sense that they transport users from a passive role in front of the television to an active role in the web, where users produce their own content and are forced to be creative. 
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"As much chaos as we can stand"

Like the birth of Impressionism in Paris in the late nineteenth century, the initiatives that are now shaping our society are the result of opportunity. If Impressionism was born in Paris, around the tables of the Cafe Guerbois, the gathering place for artists now famous around the world - Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir - the birth of Twitter and YouTube are not in the least due to opportunity.
According to Clay Shirky, if Twitter and YouTube are under 5 years old this is not because the technology did not exist before, but because society was not yet ready to take advantage of such tools.

Today, new media must be integrated into society by what the author refers to a movement of "as much chaos as we can stand".
 Initiatives are multiplying; some of them become Facebook and YouTube, while others die because they are unable to find their audience. 

In this chaos, thousands of useful projects are emerging -  
Patientlikeme, for instance, which allows patients with rare diseases to give each other moral support and share their symptoms to make advances in research. Ushahidi is another good example: the website, which means "testimony" in Swahili, was born in 2008 to report on post-election violence in Kenya. Since then, it has become an indispensable tool for NGOs to identify and report on humanitarian needs in countries that face economic, political and environmental crises, and from where information often leaks with difficulty[+][1]. 

On the other hand, thousands of other initiatives are dying in this chaos, sometimes only to resurface a few years later, when the concept has been clarified and users are ready. Sixdegrees (1997) and Friendster (2002), for instance, after having served millions of users, faced competition from Facebook (2004) and finally had to give in to their young competitor.
Once the book is closed, we can only be enthusiastic about the profusion of useful initiatives that the Internet has allowed. But facing the number of useless items that appear online, we can only wonder if the author is not too optimistic. Indeed, we wonder if such useless things are not destined to overtake an increasing portion of our free time?

And if the author’s thesis is strong and brilliantly handled, it is unfortunate that he has not considered the time “wasted” on the Internet more carefully. Given the time we now spend glued to a screen rather than being outside, doing sports, spending time with friends or family, we need to ensure that useful projects benefit from our cognitive surplus more than useless projects do. If this is not the case, we will not be so optimistic about the greater use of the Internet. Thus, a major new challenge for Internet guru Clay Shirky could be to assess how much “useless” time is spent on the web, and to compare it with more “useful” time.
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Photo credit: The Penguin Press
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Book title: Cognitive Surplus
Subhead:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Author(s): Clay Shirky
Editor(s): Allen Lane
Release Date: 01/07/2010
N° ISBN: 978-1-846-14217-8
Number of pages: 256 pages

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