Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus

I've been a fan of Clay Shirky since I first started reading his works, back in 2003 or 2004. After having just finished his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, my admiration is a high as ever. If your interests are at all similar to mine, I have to recommend the book. I would love to one day be able to do something at least similar to what Mr. Shirky does for a living. The book is essentially an analysis of the social effects of the Internet and related technology, touching on subjects including behavioral economics, social network theory, political theory and the history of technology.

Attempting to summarize the main thesis of the book could perhaps be done better by Shirky himself in this video, which is essentially the opening chapter of Cognitive Surplus. For those of you who want something quicker than sitting through a 15 minute video though, allow me to make to the effort.

Cognitive Surplus has a relatively optimistic message, pointing out that the society of the developed world, has had a surplus of free time for the last 70 years, due in large part to the development of the 40 hour workweek, but that people have not had much of an outlet for this free time other than simply watching TV or consuming other mass media. Indeed, as pointed out by Robert Putnam in his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, many of the other, less passive, pastimes of people have actively withered away. People no longer spend as much time in bowling leagues, or other civic groups, as they did in the past. In part this has been because of the mass move to the cities and suburbs, because of the fragmented, unwalkable nature of suburbia, the ease of watching television or listening to the radio, and so on.

However, given a few more years to look back on, Shirky takes a much more optimistic view than Robert Putnam did, noting that this trend is beginning to reverse itself, as people begin to use the Internet for social collaboration. This surplus of free-time has finally found a large scale outlet and is just beginning to be used. We are just beginning to see the benefits to be gained from this, ranging from Wikipedia, to open source software projects, to the mass conversations occurring across blogs, Twitter, Reddit, and the like. Shirky makes the point that all of the man hours required to make all of Wikipedia is spent each weekend by American citizens watching television advertisements. And as that surplus continues to get directed away from the passive watching of TV, tremendous things will become possible. A redirection of how we spend our time as significant as what occurred during the Industrial Revolution is beginning to happen.

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