Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cognitive Surplus—Book Synopsis

(Image from Amazon)

In the last couple posts, I summarized Here Comes Everybody, a well-known book by Clay Shirky about how Internet technologies and social media have lowered transaction costs for organizing people into groups.  This post will synopsize his follow-up book, Cognitive Surplus, which picks up where Shirky left us hanging after Here Comes Everybody.  As Shirky says right off the bat in the first chapter:

This book picks up where that one left off, starting with the observation that the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.  Our cognitive surplus is only potential; it doesn’t mean anything or do anything by itself.  To understand what we can make of this new resource, we have to understand not just the kind of actions it makes possible but the hows and wheres of those actions” (p 27-28).

The hows and wheres of  “cognitive surplus”—i.e., free time as a shared resource—he breaks up into four components.

The 4 things that make ‘cognitive surplus’ possible:

1) Means (Chapter 2): a new economic model has been initiated by new media.
  • The old model of “Gutenberg economics” (by "Gutenberg" Shirky just means print media) includes professional producers (e.g., publishers, broadcasters) and amateur consumers (e.g., readers of newspapers, radio listeners). 
  • The new model of “post-Gutenberg economics” has amateurs acting as both producers and consumers: they don’t just consume but also create content for new media (e.g., bloggers, youtubers, Tweeters).

2) Motive (Chapter 3): new incentives have been introduced by new technologies.
  • The old model of ‘market transactions’ (e.g., working for a company) motivates people to work for extrinsic rewards (i.e., money, compensation).
  • The new model of ‘communal sharing’ (e.g., sharing blog posts, videos, online articles) motivates people to work for intrinsic rewards (i.e., charity, for the love of it).

3) Opportunity (Chapter 4): basically, Shirky recaps his point in Here Comes Everybody:
  • Social media have lowered transaction costs that make communicating with many people much easier than it used to be.

4) Culture & Civics (Chapters 5, 6, & 7): new media have allowed a ‘culture of sharing,’ which can be evaluated along a social spectrum, from personal to civic.
  • Personal Sharing: sharing content from person to person (e.g., personal emails, sharing individual photos)
  • Communal Sharing: sharing content with people in a group (e.g., group emails, sharing group photos)
  • Public Sharing: persons/groups making public resources to help each other (e.g., creating open source software, writing Wikipedia articles)
  • Civic Sharing: personals/groups making social changes to help everyone (using social media like Twitter or Facebook for political activism)

(For those who read Shirky’s previous book, you may have noticed this social spectrum resembles the Sharing-Cooperation-CollaborativeProduction-Collective Action spectrum that he presents in Here Comes Everybody.)

So how do we ensure that we get public and civic value from our new technologies?  Shirky’s answer: experiment, experiment, experiment!

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” (p 207).


Clay Shirky
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)


Sherry Turkle
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Now whether or not new media will solidify long-term public and civic value, he concedes, is an open question, subject to speculation:

The amount of public and civic value we get out of our cognitive surplus is an open question, and one strongly affected by the culture of the groups doing the sharing, and by the culture of the larger society that these groups are embedded in” (p 176).

This nuance is why Shirky may be wrong in the end.  For instance, consider that criminals and terrorists also make use of social media—quite the opposite of civic value!

So is Shirky too optimistic?  Probably, but that’s another topic, one we’ll discuss in the next post, where I’ll compare Clay Shirky to less sanguine writers like Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together.