Big Think about the Internet: Dorie’s Book Review of Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky – who teaches at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program – is the official “Internet big picture guy.” His new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is a sweeping look at the evolution of communication, how humans use their time, and potential uses of technology (starting with London’s 18th century gin craze and moving on from there). This isn’t the place for hands-on tips about effective online techniques – nor is it meant to be. Shirky’s all about providing broad context and larger meaning.

The basic idea (the “cognitive surplus” we’re talking about) is that in the past, people were forced to be passive viewers (if you didn’t own a TV station, you couldn’t make TV shows). All that is changing with technology and the Internet, and it turns out (as Shirky claims) that passivity was a historical accident. Nowadays, people have gobs of extra time and if we harness even a tiny fraction of it for the public good (such as creating Wikipedia entries), then society can create some amazing new things.

Shirky’s a good writer, and tosses in copious examples from highbrow sources (electronic efforts to keep the authorities honest in Africa) to the pedestrian (hordes of hormone-addled Josh Groban fans raising money for charity).

Shirky – instead of gaping over new technology, like a lot of commentators – suggests that we not ask “Why is this new?” but instead,  “Why is this a surprise?” Napster, then, becomes a phenomenon not of evil millennials hell-bent on thievery, but instead, as he points out: “1) Digital data is infinitely and perfectly copyable at zero marginal cost; 2) people will share if sharing is simple enough, and we generally resist being spiteful under the same conditions; and 3) Shawn Fanning designed a system to link 1) to 2) via the right incentives.” That, I think, is exactly right. On Internet activism, Shirky also correctly points out that Facebook has simply “lower[ed] the cost of social coordination among its users.” Calling 200 people takes a lot of time; emailing 200 people takes almost no time. (And yes, with information overload, you may still have to call them to follow up – but things are definitely speeded along.)

Toward the end of the book, Shirky presents an interesting thought problem from the Gutenberg era. “…Observers of early print culture assumed that the abundance of books would mean more people reading the same few texts…As it turned out, the press undermined rather than strengthened the earlier intellectual culture. Because each reader had access to more books, intellectual diversity, not uniformity, was the result. This increase in diversity of sources corroded faith in older institutions…The changes today have something of that feeling.”

So what’s next for a world in which the Huffington Post has almost as much credibility (and sometimes more) as the Washington Post? What do you think?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant for clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.