Friday, March 18, 2011

Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus

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.

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.

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:

Clay Shirky, "How cognitive surplus will change the world."

1 comment:

  1. I keep hear you talking about this book. Enjoyed the post. Funny part is that I am sitting at my weekend job working on my blog and decided to drop into take a gander at yours Mr. Khune. While reading your post here I had the T.V. on in the background and decided to turn it off in order to use my full cognitive surplus for the night. Good thing too because the movie that was on AMC probably wasn't helping to much. It was the movie 'Speed' ;) -Jeremiah.