Cognitive Surplus

Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
ISBN: 9781594202537

With the time we (collectively) spend watching television, we could build more Wikipedias than the world needs.

Yes, really. We’ve got the time — even if we think we don’t, most of us actually do — and these days, nearly everyone has access to a sufficient level of technology to build stuff, not just consume stuff. Most importantly, we have have the ability to build networked stuff, to build networks, to leverage crowds to do something besides sit on the couch and watch tv. The free time of educated folks is a “general social asset” and if we (just in the U.S.) didn’t collectively spend it watching 200 billion hours of television, we could really do something. If we directed just a fraction of it differently, we could have another Wikipedia (a mere 100 million hours of effort) or come up with new, wonderful things.

Not that watching television has to be a solitary, disconnected pursuit anymore. Have you ever watched an episode of Glee with twitter streaming commentary? Shirky uses the example of lolcats as the “stupidest possible creative act” but that might actually go to the #gleek peeps on twitter. In any case, Shirky’s real point is in participating, by creating something instead of just passively consuming, there is the potential spark for great collective works.

We create one another’s opportunities, whether for passivity or for activity, and we have always done so. The difference today is that the internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities, at lower cost and with less hassle than ever before, and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history

I don’t think he’s wrong; he’s pointing out the possible, not necessarily the probable.

I highly recommended this book if you are looking for a richer, deeper take on user contribution; if you think we’re all going to hell in a handbasket and no one has time to do anything about it; or if you want to be provoked into thinking more about the possibilities for networked creating and building. (If you are pressed for time, you can check out the transcript of Shirky’s Gin, Television, and Social Surplus talk.)

Shirky raises more questions than he answers in this book. I think that is a good thing: we have to time to work on the answers, together.

The single greatest predictor of how much value we get out of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody.

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