[Marxism] Cognitive surplus
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 20 08:47:12 MDT 2010
July 16, 2010
by Tim Walker
Cognitive Surplus, By Clay Shirky
Comparing the rise of the web to the invention of Gutenberg's
printing press has become a familiar cliché, and there are few
theorists of the internet age still able to wring any new
significance from the association. Clay Shirky, however, is one of
them. The printing press was expected to prop up the religious
culture of the 15th century by making its central texts more
widespread. Instead, it encouraged intellectual variety.
The modest ambitions of the early internet were to impart
information from the top down, like books or television. Instead,
it enabled mass interaction and creation. "What seemed a new
channel for traditional media is actually changing it," Shirky
writes in Cognitive Surplus: "what seemed to threaten cultural
uniformity is actually creating diversity."
Compared to his previous volume, Here Comes Everybody, this book's
title is hardly a catchy one. But the concept is straightforward
enough. In the post-industrial age, people enjoy leisure time
unavailable to their ancestors, and until recently that time was
largely given over to a passive, purely consumptive activity:
watching television. The internet has turned many of those passive
hours into productive ones. Aggregate the free time of every
person with a broadband connection, and suddenly society finds
itself with a vast creative resource: a "cognitive surplus".
Social media, Shirky's field of study, allows that resource to be
pooled and put to use.
Thus "the people formerly known as the audience" have used their
cognitive surplus to create the low-cultural Lolcats (a website
that collects amusing photographs of cats with silly captions),
the loftily-conceived Ushahidi (which began as a service for users
to track ethnic violence in Kenya, and has become a versatile tool
for NGOs the world over) and the likes of PatientsLikeMe (a
platform for patients to share their experiences of illness). In
Shirky's view, these social creations fall into a series of
categories: personal, communal, public and civic - the last
describing those shared projects whose mission is nothing less
than to transform society. These high-minded web ventures, he
suggests, are the most valuable of all.
Shirky is an original thinker, a compelling stylist, and a sage
with a remarkable record of accuracy. Here Comes Everybody will
likely become an enduring (electronic) document of social media's
early spread. Cognitive Surplus is a manifesto for what's next -
or what ought to be.
Using behavioural research, the optimistic author insists people
are far less driven by money and self-interest than we've allowed
ourselves to believe. "Many of the unexpected uses of
communications tools are surprising," he writes, "because our old
beliefs about human nature were so lousy." Such triumphal
collective endeavours as Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, are
the work not of paid employees but amateur enthusiasts.
He also gives the lie to the idea that new technologies have
altered human behaviour, arguing convincingly that they have
allowed merely for more elegant incarnations of old habits.
Teenagers have always been emotional oversharers, be it by
telephone, text or Facebook. People have always shared music, by
hand or via Napster. Grandparents have always cherished
communication with their families, only now letter-writing has
morphed into emailing for an unexpected generation of tech-savvy
If there's a bogeyman in Cognitive Surplus, it's that old
time-waster, television. But the web has changed TV, too. Take
Lost, as Shirky does - a show as much new media as old. Its
viewers weren't just viewers," he argues, "they collaboratively
created a compendium of material related to that show called (what
Cognitive Surplus ignores the more sinister uses of social media.
If the web can be used to monitor instances of violence, then it
can be used to organise them. And while it may present an endless
diversity of choice, large companies can also use it to monopolise
consumer preference. The internet facilitates the darker side of
human nature just as it does our best instincts.
Shirky knows that; it simply isn't the point of this book, which
looks forward to a Utopian future, or at least a Wiki-topian one,
where large groups of people will continue to come together
instantly in their free time to solve problems, change society for
the better and, yes, share funny pictures of cats.
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