As followers of this blog may have noted, I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s new book, “Cognitive Surplus,” for the past few weeks. It’s one of those books that rewards long pauses between readings, so that you can internalize the information and observe some of the forces at work in your own life.
It is most definitely not a book that is just a bloated magazine article. It’s well-structured, thoughtful, and rewards attention to the end.
In fact, the book could be entitled “Cognitive Revolution” for the number of pat ideas Shirky nicely and convincingly upsets. These kinds of intellectual thrills come often in the book — that flip you feel in your brain when a magician changes your worldview with a flourish, or when mathematics you were just starting to understand suddenly solve in a surprising way.
It starts with his comparison of icanhascheezburger.com to the Cartoon Network. In the era in which cognitive surplus first emerged, Shirky believes, we placated ourselves in isolation by watching television — isolated consumption of uniform spectacle that created at least a shared space for social recognition, if not actual social interaction. During this time, truly interactive social spaces (bowling alleys, social clubs, dance halls, town concerts) shrank away. Television became a thin social adhesive and a pleasant way to kill time.
Shirky then posits that, even conceding the unlikely fact that icanhascheezburger.com represents the lowest form of digital creativity (it’s too funny for that to be the case) — but even accepting that, he wonders whether icanhascheezburger.com is just a pale imitation of the Cartoon Network, or whether the Cartoon Network is just a low-grade version of lolcats.
Is the stronger social adhesive we’re using today making entertainments more powerful, engaging, and downright fun than television alone could ever be?
The book barely falters anywhere along its trajectory. Shirky breaks his argument down like a detective, checking in with means, motive, and opportunity. The section on opportunity is perhaps the most convincing. After all, it’s not as if teenagers or college students in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s wouldn’t have posted party pictures online — it’s just that there was no opportunity to do it. Human nature, Shirky asserts, is essentially seeking validation through sharing and generosity. Now, we’re creating a media infrastructure that makes that possible on a scale and in ways never before possible. We’re uncorking intrinsic human needs and desires.
Toward the end, Shirky contemplates what is really different about all this. While it stems from basic human needs, desires, and aspirations, ultimately there is renewed personal power to social media along with a new form of civic power — from finding potholes to making terrorists drown in pink undies (a great story in the book). Shirky believes that because the civic power of social media is the hardest to harness and maintain, it needs the most attention.
I won’t tell you more about the book — about how gin and television are correlated, for instance — but I do recommend it highly. Skeptics have been known to dismiss Shirky as an apologist for social media, but I think he’s probably the most thoughtful and articulate observers of this aspect of our times.
“Cognitive Surplus” is a worthwhile way to expend some of your own.