Cognitive Surplus – Use Social Connectivity to Change the World

June 29th, 2010

My TIVO hates Clay Shirky. In his piercing new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Shirky asserts that the technological revolution has enabled us to work together to conquer challenges big and small, if we’d just watch less TV and commit to participating in something other than our own mental decay.

TV watching on a per capita basis has increased for 50 years in a row, and that staggering amount of time has come largely at the expense of human connectedness and innovation. Before TV we entertained ourselves by interacting, making and doing, whether it was paper airplanes, a game of Yahtzee, or family harmonica night.

But at least in places with electricity, we’ve largely retreated into our heads, with the flicker of TV as the endless soundtrack.

But all is not lost, if you just commit to turning away from Starsky & Hutch, and toward the opportunities for greater good.

Sharing, It’s Good for What Ails Ya

In this meticulously researched book, Shirky suggests that the historical barriers to collaboration (principally time, expense, and the ability to easily find like-minded people) have been largely stripped away, enabling us to make better use of the unused brain cells (our cognitive surplus) made dormant by TV addiction.

The book includes several compelling examples of groups creating and maintaining impressive online collaborations, without a profit motive in sight. Harnessing the power of the collective (crowdsourcing for social change) is a thread woven throughout Cognitive Surplus, and its viability requires two of Shirky’s assertions to be accurate.

First, that our default state as a species is to create and share and collaborate, and we are just now moving back toward normalcy, aided by the vast increase in content creation and sharing mechanisms. Second, that making collaboration more convenient will inexorably cause it to become more commonplace.

Shirky makes a great case for it to be so, citing LOLCats as an example of widespread human collaboration and creation – albeit devoid of the type of society-enhancing mission and outcomes he hopes is the eventual result of this movement.

Many of our behaviors…(are) held in place not be desire but by inconvenience, and they’re quick to disappear when the inconvenience does. Getting news from a piece of paper, having to be physically near a television at a certain time to see a certain show, keeping our vacation pictures to ourselves as if they were some big secret – not one of these behaviors made a lick of sense. We did those things for decades or even centuries, but they were only as stable as the accidents that caused them. And when the accidents went away, so did the behaviors.

Shirky is realistic in his assessment of collaborations strengths and weaknesses. His chronicle of an online study group at Ryerson University is a perfect example of the ramifications of widespread interconnectivity that society will be wrestling with into the future.

The rise and role of the “non-professional” is another very interesting concept in the book, as an increase in participation naturally leads to an explosion in content created by people that haven’t been vetted by the traditional means of degrees, apprenticeships, or ownership of a broadcasting license. Shirky points out that consumer-powered review sites like Yelp are just as valid as a critique from a professional restaurant reviewer, although perhaps for different reasons based on the collective knowledge and biases of each source.

We’re Making Progress Together

As I see it, the recipe for improving the world through collaboration has three steps:

1. More people making stuff (100 million bloggers can’t be wrong)
2. More people sharing the stuff that they make (3 billion photos per month uploaded to Facebook)
3. People that make and share coming together to tackle larger initiatives

I’d say we’re somewhere between steps two and three, and Cognitive Surplus provides many examples of success at each stage of the process.

In a sea of “me too” books about social media, Cognitive Surplus stands out as about so much more. Who we are. Who we want to be. And who we could be if we put down the remote and worked together, with technology as the enabler.

I’m a bit of a change addict. I’d go to a different restaurant every day, if it was viable. I almost never read a book twice, but Cognitive Surplus will be an exception. It’s the rare book that captures where we are and where we’re going, while making you think and still being accessible.

Bravo, Clay.

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