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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age


reviewed by Nabeel Ahmad - January 05, 2011

coverTitle: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Author(s): Clay Shirky
Publisher: Penguin,
ISBN: 1594202532, Pages: 256, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com


Citizens across the world watch an average of 20 hours of television per week, adding up to trillions of hours each year. The interest in this fact is not that we have this free time – or Cognitive Surplus, as author Clay Shirky describes – but how we choose to expend our most valuable resource. Shirky argues that our creativity and willingness to share in this connected world – the book’s subtitle, even on a miniscule level and especially through the Internet, can have great impact. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age succeeds in getting us to think about how we can better understand this phenomenon by dissecting numerous examples and threading them together into a smoothly read piece.

Shirky’s book details the hows, whys, and whats behind cognitive surplus in a culture that instantiates change. He uses Wikipedia as an example. We could create 2,000 Wikipedia-size projects in the same amount of time we spend watching television, just in one year, in the United States.

The book does a superb job of balancing an array of global, generational, topical, and historical examples. From a South Korean protest of importing American beef by teenage girls to the gin craze of 1720s London, the core of each story speaks of collaborative action. With each example that Shirky explores, he is visiting the past in order to see what our future may look like. By analyzing social and information transitions over the past three centuries, he looks at the possibilities of a seemingly uninterrupted stream of information and what opportunities may be created.

Shirky is quick to note that, the real gap is between doing nothing and doing something. He gives an example of lolcats, a picture of a cat with a funny caption. Shirky argues that someone making lolcats has bridged this gap between doing nothing and doing something. With this, he implies that watching television is doing nothing. While the activity is passive, many would argue that watching a television show on the Discovery Channel is doing more than creating a lolcat. Another shortcoming of this same argument Shirky presents is that he does not make it clear whether the advent of the Internet replaced television viewing over other activities like exercise, playing cards, or carpentry, to name a few. While his argument tends to be limited to the comparison of television and the Internet, he most likely intended to demonstrate a more holistic view.

Most of Shirky’s examples are highly optimistic and focus on the positive aspects of change. We do know, however, that just as many negative consequences result from the same medium and methods, yet Shirky does not explore these nearly as much as he could. One way to balance the storyline would have been to include analysis on how hacker networks, political smears, and fundamentalist regimes all use their cognitive surplus to come together online for a common, yet dangerous cause. He then could have juxtaposed those negative examples with the positives ones, drawing out similarities and differences in structure and execution. This admission of the darker side of cognitive surplus would have strengthened his argument by demonstrating the proliferation and power of our free time for both good and not so good.

Academia can learn much from this thought-provoking piece. One term not mentioned in the book, but synonymous with the topic, is “crowdsourcing,” which involves outsourcing tasks normally performed by a set person or group to an undefined, large group or community through an open call. Shirky notes that,

Skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile, or suggested that if it does work, it is a kind of cheating, because sharing at a scale that competes with older institutions is somehow wrong. (p. 161-162)

He then mentions the criticisms put forth by the heads of Microsoft and Encyclopedia Britannica over open-source software and Wikipedia, respectively. In the academic publishing world, peer-review journals could be next in line. The prestigious 60-year-old Shakespeare Quarterly recently crowdsourced four submissions for review. The process ended with 41 people making more than 350 comments, many of which elicited responses from the authors.

As Shirky eloquently puts it, “Curiously, an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits itself to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its management” (p. 41).

The most practical chapter is the last, giving readers ideas on how to turn their cognitive surplus – and their peers’ – into something meaningful. Here, Shirky clearly outlines best practice approaches for improving the odds of successful cognitive surplus use. He ends the book giving us the encouragement that we, too, can make a difference by harnessing our cognitive surplus.

In the past few years, we have begun to watch less television than the year before, for the first time in nearly 50 years. We are learning how to maximize our free time. You are much better off reading this book than not. You will find pieces to nitpick and biases to argue. But taking a journey through this crucial time in human history and discovering what is to come makes it worth the read – that is, of course, if you have the free time.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 05, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16275, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:41:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Nabeel Ahmad
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    NABEEL AHMAD, Ed.D., is an Associate Adjunct Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. He co-teaches the nationís first mobile phone learning class and a course on using social media for learning. He leads IBMís mobile learning initiative, exploring strategic and practical ways IBM employees can extend their learning via mobile devices. Nabeel's recent publications include "Research-based insights informing a change in IBM's m-Learning strategy" (Handbook of Research on Mobility and Computing) and "Smartphones Make IBM Smarter, But Not As Expected" (Training and Development). Upcoming publications include "Mobile Phones: Learning Environment On-the-Go" (Educause Quarterly) and "Mobile Devices for Learning: A 2-way conversation" (Michael Allenís 2011 e-Learning Annual).
 
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