June 16, 2010


Sharing Liberally: a review of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky (Evgeny Morozov, 6/16/10, Boston Review)

The main argument of Cognitive Surplus rests on a striking analogy. Just as gin helped the British to smooth out the brutal consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the Internet is helping us to deal more constructively with the abundance of free time generated by modern economies.

Shirky argues that free time became a problem after the end of WWII, as Western economies grew more automated and more prosperous. Heavy consumption of television provided an initial solution. Gin, that “critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another,” gave way to the sitcom.

More recently TV viewing has given way to the Internet. Shirky argues that much of today’s online culture—including videos of toilet-flushing cats and Wikipedia editors wasting 19,000 (!) words on an argument about whether the neologism “malamanteau” belongs on the site—is much better than television. Better because, while sitcoms give us couch potatoes, the Internet nudges us toward creative work.

That said, Cognitive Surplus is not a celebration of digital creativity along the lines of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman or Lawrence Lessig’s “remix culture.” Shirky instead focuses on the sharing aspect of online creation: we are, he asserts, by nature social, so the Internet, unlike television, lets us be who we really are. “No one would create a lolcat to keep for themselves,” Shirky argues, referring to the bête noire of Internet-bashers, the humorous photos of cats spiced up with funny and provocative captions. “Cognitive surplus” is what results when we multiply our constantly expanding free time by the tremendous power of the Internet to enable us do more with less, and to do it together with others.

Arguments about infinite digital opportunities for doing good have been a commonplace of cyber-utopians since the mid-1990s. But Shirky is a populist, not a utopian. His only benchmark of success is the relative standing of “us” against dominant institutions and, in particular, against the mind-numbing, brain-damaging, creativity-suppressing beast that is the traditional media.

For Shirky, doing anything online beats the passivity nurtured by the traditional media. The argument is beautiful in its simplicity: “the real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap,” for “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.”

To drive that point home, he proposes a thought experiment: while Americans spend 200 billion hours a year watching television, the whole of humanity spent something like 100 million hours to create Wikipedia (or, at least, its 2008 version). Thus, even a tiny change in our TV watching habits can lead to significant social gains. Not every Internet project would become a Wikipedia—lolcats are still currency of the day—but Shirky urges us to keep trying.

...is the excess of leisure time.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2010 4:14 PM
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