Posts Tagged ‘clay shirky’

In the spring of 2008, hordes of people descended on the city of San Francisco for a gathering that some might call a trade expo.  This term is slightly misleading, because the Web 2.0 Expo is not necessarily focused on a single trade or segment of the media industry like other media industry trade expos like Cinema Expo or ComicCon.  Instead, the Web 2.0 Expo is intended to bring people from all kinds of media together to form connections and to essentially try to approach the new web 2.0 with more strategy and thought for design than occurred in the design and implementation of the original Internet.  The 2008 San Francisco expo is the second expo that has happened, and although almost every kind of media is represented in the attendees, it is billed as a place for the “builders of the next generation web: designers, developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, business strategists, and venture capitalists, people who have experiences to share and a passion for learning” (Web 2.0 Expo 2008).  The language on the expo’s website is optimistic and vague, calling for attendees to come and “immerse yourself in the Web 2.0 experience.”  Although the bulk of the expo centers around connecting people in various media industries to each other in an effort to increase the connectivity of Internet industry and infrastructure designers and therefore usher in a new era of Internet design and function, the event also boasts many different speakers from various areas of industry.  It was in this context of trade show and not academic conference that Clay Shirky took the stage to speak. Shirky is a writer for both academic forums and industry trade magazines, as well as popular periodicals.  He also serves as a consultant with many world-class organizations and companies like the BBC, Library of Congress, and Nokia, working to help them understand how to make better use of decentralized technologies (like wireless networks, peer-to-peer, etc.).  He also teaches at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Shirky’s address, which has now been transcribed and has blazed across the digital landscape through the viral means of blog comments and mail lists, was entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.”  Shirky began the speech by referring to the early industrial revolution and the opinion of an unnamed British historian that gin was a coping mechanism for the urban British who had been put together with so many other people due to the growth of the cities because of industrial growth.  This historian believed that because of the suddenness of this transformation from rural to urban life, one way society coped was to turn to gin for a generation. Only after this period of collective confusion and angst passed, he argues, did British society manage to come up with many of the institutions the industrial revolution is known for producing.  But Shirky makes a jump here to his first key observation: “that real development was dependant on people start[ing to think] of [people living together in such densities] as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than dissipate.” The process that Shirky believes he has identified is that first the fundamental change to social and cultural structures that were comfortable and familiar left people feeling as if they were living in a crisis, and they found coping mechanisms to manage their discomfort with the unfamiliar.  Once society became more comfortable with the change to their cultural structures, they began to see possibilities for these new structures and for the change itself instead of seeing only liabilities.

This picture is certainly a quick and dirty cultural analysis of how cultural revolutions work, and although almost all of the nuanced meaning is lost in the simplification (he does not reference class at all, a tremendously influential factor in the industrial revolution), Shirky is content to oversimplify things so that his main point stands out: he is primarily concerned with describing and exploring the collective power of a society and how the society navigates cultural revolutions.  He is particularly interested in how society manages to do these things in new ways using new tools, and he uses a term to describe the collective cognitive potential of a society: cognitive surplus.  This is a term that attempts to identify and define any potential for doing things that lies beyond what we need to do in order to survive.  Going to work, making or finding food, cleaning the house, and caring for and educating children are not part of this idea of a cognitive surplus; rather, they are simply the meeting of needs.  The collective time, energy, and cognitive power that exists beyond the time given to meeting needs is called cognitive surplus.  Going to a movie, dropping off children to soccer lessons, writing a blog, and planning a gourmet meal or a date are all activities that we do to fill up our free time.  If we had a much longer work week and therefore less free time, then our cognitive surplus would be a good deal less.

Shirky not only identifies all leisure time (even if it is filled with activity) as something of cultural interest, he labels it a surplus of cognition.  This surplus language implies that we have a resource that is available to us, and this language invites questions like “what is being done now with the surplus?  How is it being used?  Are there more strategic ways to use it?  Who controls it?”  The language Shirky uses begs these questions in a way that merely using the term “leisure time” does not.  It assigns value to the time and mental potential of an individual or a collective of individuals, and the very nature of this phrasing hints at a responsibility people have to use time in constructive ways.

Although some of Shirky’s assumptions are simplistic, like his view of television viewing as merely passive, his concept of cognitive surplus is compelling and can be useful in describing and understanding how knowledge communities function and employ human energy to projects.  Calling this human energy labor is neither accurate nor helpful, for cognitive surplus is an altogether different thing than labor.  Labor carries much political and cultural context with it, but does not accurately describe the work and play being done by people on their computers after they get home from work and log on to their chat group or their wiki, or contribute to any number of projects that run across traditional boundary lines of class, gender, ethnicity, or politics.

Shirky implicitly argues that while cognitive surplus has been a constant in all societies, in the United States it really began to expand after World War II, when a growing GDP per capita and a more universal 5 day work week began an unprecedented growth of leisure time.  He argues that we began to fill that surplus, in large part, by watching television.  His obvious disdain for watching television is made abundantly clear in his article, and although his dismissiveness of television watching and his categorization of it as inherently passive is, at best, a gross oversimplification, it does not undermine the idea of cognitive surplus.  While Shirky categorizes television watching as a mechanism that has served, in part, to help society cope with extreme and unprecedented change in social structures, he also believes that society is starting to become used to these social structures and is attempting to see the cognitive surplus society possesses “as an asset rather than a crisis.”  This is, perhaps, an unfair categorization of the situation, since the tools society is using to begin to deploy this cognitive surplus in new and strategic ways has only recently been discovered in the Internet and the myriad new media like blogs, listservs, mailing lists, and wikis.  While we may have found and begun to deploy media that are inherently more active or political for the average user than network television, we need not criticize ourselves for not possessing the tools to do what we can now.  The question that needs to be asked is the question that Shirky eventually asks after the detour through his snarky complaint about the worthlessness of television: “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it [in any place that a user or viewer has been served up a passive or canned experience], could we make good things happen?”  Indeed we can, and we are.  Media that includes the viewer and allows them to be part of the creative process is media that gives an expressive and constructive use to cognitive surplus.  Editing wikipedia, posting to a blog, creating a video response to a video game website, or contributing to a community discussion board conversation about neighborhood crime prevention are all various activities to utilize cognitive surplus in some creative or expressive way.

Read Full Post »

Gin carts and cognitive surplus

Several weeks ago, I read a short transcript of a speech given by Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 conference (thanks, Marshall!).  I enjoyed the playful style and the clarity of the speech, but most importantly I heard of the idea of cognitive surplus for the first time. 


You can read the article for yourself here.


And if, after reading, you have anything to say about the article, against the article, or whatever, come back and let me know your thoughts by commenting on this blog.

Read Full Post »