Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky denotes the sitcom as the critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another (Shirky, 4). Since the Second World War, he claims that we as humans have had to grapple with something that we had never had to deal with before: free time. The restructuring of society created by social density in response to economic changes such as industrialization and post World War II United States brought free time into our lives. Suburbanization of the educated population changed the way by which people spent this leisure time between work and sleep. For postwar United States, we watched TV. With the increase in television viewing came a steady reduction in social capital- our stock of relationships with people we trust and rely on (Shirky, 7). We began socializing less with people, and constituting the people that we watch on TV as imaginary friends. Shirky coins the term “cognitive surplus” as the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate.

Life in the developed worlds went from being a passive population to a participatory culture with the emergence of interactive media and the Cybernetic Revolution. The assumed purpose of media was no longer to allow ordinary people to consume professionally created material. Rather, user-generated-content began to define media in this new age.

Aggregation became essential to the way people spent this cognitive surplus of time. By being connected together in a single, shared media landscape, people finally had the means to create value for one another. This revolution of meta-media is centered on the shock of the inclusion of amateurs as producers (Shirky, 52). Internet became the public medium that created opportunities where human motivation already existed, allowing people to act in generous, public, and social ways (Shirky, 62). Shirky explains that these new technological tools have not caused those behaviors, but they have allowed them to happen (Shirky, 62).

Shirky notes the ability that interactive media has to change the way we spend our aggregated cognitive surplus. He explains how this culture of communication transforms the way by which we live out our lives, relying on communicative technologies for much of that. Shirky presents many analogies with open-ended questions, leaving the reader unsure of exactly how mad cow disease, Grobanites and social media have had an effect on this Cybernetic Revolution, for instance. The author does a great job at relating the more advanced social media topics to things more easily understood by the average educated person. At the same time, I would have appreciated less analogies and more direct references to the present issues and uses of our cognitive surplus. Given the range of new possibilities provided in Shirky’s text, we do not end with a strong sense of what the future holds with this shift from passive to participatory culture.  

In addition, Shirky focuses on the affordances of interactive media, and how this revolution has changed the way people interact with each other. He specifically points out the computer’s ability to aggregate our cognitive surplus and transform us into prosumers (producers + consumers). Shirky further explains that all humans have the basic desire to share and create media, but never had the opportunity to this with past media technologies. Passive participatory media which defined the twentieth century, such like radio and television, did not enable human beings to interact with one another through media forms. With the affordances of the Cybernetic Revolution, people were given the chance to do this and, according to Shirky, had all motivation to do so.

A point of contention I recognized in Shirky’s book related to Nancy Baym’s social discourses of new media. At different points within the book, Shirky relies heavily on the idea of the social construction of technology – a term Baym defines as an assumption that we as humans have total agency over technology and how we interact with it because we created it, attributing no power to technology and all to the nature of the people. At other points in the book, however, Shirky emphasizes how the developments of new communicative technologies have changed us from a passive to participatory culture. It is unclear of whether he believes this to be technological determinism under effects or the social construction of technology – or both, social shaping.

 To usefully supplement the book with material and insights from class, I would suggest that Shirky study the work of Baym’s defining characteristics of community offline and online. Shirky touches on how interactive media has had the ability to connect the online and offline world, making no real distinction between cyberspace and reality. He claims that cyberspace is now an extension of the real world. Creating events that interact with offline time and space is not uncommon. There is no real separation between these two worlds anymore. Expanding this idea with Baym’s idea of media platforms serving as a “third space” would compliment his argument that both spaces are critical to social cohesion in the world we live in today.


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