Monday, January 17, 2011

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Here are some excerpts from Cognitive Surplus, a recent book by Clay Shirky that I enjoyed. His previous book, Here Comes Everybody, had some ideas that contributed to The Secret Peace. This new book has a lot of parallels, as well.

Shirky calls what we have today a "cognitive surplus": a surfeit of intellect, energy, and free time that has been growing for several decades now but was previously subsumed into television viewing. Now, with new outlets to funnel that creativity - the web - we are witnessing a revolution of creativity, and a new wealth of writing and art.

"Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we're used to, it can be disorienting to the people who've grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to scarcity. For years after the price of long-distance calls collapsed in the United States, my older relatives would still announce that a call was "long distance." Such calls had previously been special, because they were expensive; it took people years to understand that cheap long-distance calls removed the rationale for regarding them as inherently valuable."

"The low-quality material that comes with increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we all end up prizing. That was true of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and it's true of the social media today. In comparison with a previous age's scarcity, abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off, diversity expands the range of the possible, and the best work becomes better than what went before. After the printing press, publishing came to matter more because the expansion of literary, cultural, and scientific writing benefited society, even though it was accompanied by a whole lot of junk."

"A much harder thing to explain to them [Shirky's young college students] is this: if you were a citizen of that world [the world of a few decades ago], and you had something you needed to say in public, you couldn't. Period. Media content wasn't produced by consumers; if you had the wherewithal to say something in public, you weren't a consumer anymore, by definition. Movie reviews came from movie reviewers. Public opinions came from opinion columnists. Reporting came from reporters. … In those days, anyone could produce a photograph, a piece of writing, or a song, but they had no way to make it widely available. Sending messages to the public wasn't for the public to do, and, lacking the ability to easily connect with one another, our motivation to create was subdued."

Talking about how surprised we are that people are creating so much, or that older people are using computers: "Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy."

Here's a link to get the book on Amazon.

Here's a grainy photo of Clay Shirky and myself (awkwardly holding a microphone), on the right, on stage on a panel at the NY Tech Meetup several years ago.

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