Clay Shirky
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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 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 represents the lowest form of digital creativity (it’s too funny for that to be the case) — but even accepting that, he wonders whether 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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "“Cognitive Surplus” — Look What Can Happen When We Turn Off the Television"

I haven’t read Shirky’s new book, but I did read his earlier articles where he was first floating the principles of cognitive surplus (and it’s interesting to note that he’s still using the same Gilligan’s Island jokes two years later, clearly a problem his own cognitive surplus has failed to solve). There were a few things I couldn’t reconcile then, and I’m curious if he addresses them in the book:

Television watching is a passive activity. It’s often done by people who are exhausted, who’ve worked hard all day and now just want to switch off their brains and relax. This is very different actively creating something. Clearly some portion of television watching is done by people with nothing better to do, people who could better channel their energy. But it doesn’t seem fair to lump it all into one bucket. Aren’t there times when people should just be allowed to relax and consume, rather than create? How many people really want to spend their free time editing text on Wikipedia for grammatical accuracy when they could instead zone out with a beer and watch a ballgame? Are they wrong for making this choice?

If the world takes all their television watching time and turns it into creating LOLCats, then where will anyone find the time to read all those LOLCats? If everyone is a full time creator, then who is the audience? If we’re supposed to spend a good portion of our time as the audience for all this creation, how is that any better than watching television?

Also from your example of the Cartoon Network, is it really fair to compare the concept of coming up with one LOLCat joke, perhaps a ten minute time investment to the full time work necessary to produce a half hour of professional grade entertainment? Is he suggesting that the former will replace the latter? If you’ve ever seen The Venture Bros., then you know how incredibly packed with ideas and side-splitting humor some of the Cartoon Network’s shows can be. It’s a tremendously creative piece of work and perhaps the smartest and funniest thing on television. Should I feel guilty for spending a half hour every week watching it? Is it wrong that I don’t think the 5 seconds it takes me to read a LOLCat (and find the vast majority of them lame and annoying) is as interesting or entertaining?

Is this yet another internet inspired Highlander sort of deal (“There can be only one!”) where what’s proposed must replace something, rather than adding to it or living alongside it?

Read the book. You might be surprised. Even skeptics I know who are reading it are opening their minds.

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