Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus
Cognitive Surplus

How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators
by Clay Shirky

Shirky writes in a smart, accessible way about trends in the digital era.  I’ve used both Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus in my Writing for New Media courses, both to great acclaim. Cognitive Surplus engages with the question of what we do with all this extra time and work that has emerged from industrial society, now that sharing networks have blossomed in such a way that we can do something with it.  A few thoughts:

  • The first half of the book explains how it is that people have the initiative and time to do extra cognitive work on behalf of others.  Among the more interesting observations is the idea that individuals will share with one another without economic gain.  The underlying idea here is the Gift Economy, which Shirky touches upon a little bit but would have pulled him too far afield to spend much time on it.
  • The second half of the book is about the way that culture is changing to accommodate (or combat) this new communal production.  The general thrust of the argument is that new media forms will supplant and inevitably change old media forms.  The implied aspect (which is mentioned somewhat) is that the old media masters will fight these changes, but that we want to collaborate, and now that the barriers to entry are low enough, we will.
  • The last bit, “looking for the mouse,” reiterates the central idea that this collaborative, massively multi-user modality is in fact the new default modality.  To try and construct the old modality will be to fail.
  • The freedom and chaos-loving part of me loves Shirky’s assertion that the only way to let these technologies develop is to give them “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand.”  He makes the very convincing argument that the (not using them in the political sense, but rather their traditional word definitions) conservative forces will always stifle innovation, and finding a middle ground is impossible because the liberal forces do not yet know what the technology can do, and are very bad at predicting it.
  • At the same time, I am an academic, part of a fraternity of conservative folks who study and preserve our culture, even if we are trying to steer the boat from the bow, watching the bleeding edge of change for unseen rocks ahead.  My biggest concern about the new technologies is not that we’ll stop thinking or anything like that, but that the rapidity of the change will throw the baby out with the literacy bathwater–that some of the modes of knowledge discovery that came from the internal “I” of the literate mind might be lost in the external “we” of the social digital world.  In particular, the value of time and reflection seem most on the chopping block today.

But overall, I endorse Kevin Kelly’s idea from WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS that new technology represents roughly 51-55% good change, meaning the forward-moving balance is always better.  In that light, Shirky’s ideas about how we should proceed in the digital age present a nice blend of theoretical and practical observations about the current cyberscape.

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