[Marxism] Cognitive surplus

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 20 08:47:12 MDT 2010

The Independent
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 
"silver surfers".

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 
else?) Lostpedia."

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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