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People in the developed world have a lot of spare time. However you want to look at it, we do. We really do. And until the internet came along, statistics show that a monstrous chunk of that free time went to consuming television media. Someone in their 50’s today will have consumed about 50 thousand hours of television content, says Shirky. What if we could harness even 1% of that collective amount of time that every person in the world spends on consuming television for the production of some kind of personal, communal, public or civic shared good? The thing is, with the internet and social media, now we can in ways we have never been able to do before. And that’s what Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is all about.

According to Shirky, traditional notions of media and what media is and what it can do for us and how it is produced and consumed were and are still today mere accidents; the notion of the general population as being consumers of information rather than producers of information was also simply an accident of history, he explains. It’s not that humans are intrinsically wired to consume and not create; it’s just that till now, there hasn’t been the opportunity for people to express their creativity on a global scale. Production and broadcast costs were out of reach for normal individuals to reach a global audience. One’s own local social network did not consist of enough like-minded individuals to create a meaningful culture of collaboration and interaction around one’s own specific passions. Even if there were, organisation of those people required physical organisations with management structures. The internet changed all that, insists Shirky. We inhabit a world now where many of the inconveniences blocking motivation and opportunity for sharing and production have been moved aside. We are now in a place where we are able to engage the desire to be connected to each other and create and share often for purely intrinsic motivations. And we’re still in the disorientation stage of this massive change from high-cost and/or local individual production and collaboration; we’re still coming to terms with what it means for anyone anywhere and anytime to be able to connect with a potential audience/collaborative team of 2 billion people for free. We are, indeed, still asking why people would contribute to projects on the internet for free; and this, Shirky insists, is simply because we are still working on an old set of assumptions of what motivates people, assumptions that were formed due to the very nature of what it used to cost to contribute.

In such a way, Shirky rams home his belief that we are in the middle of a media revolution. Citing collaboration examples such as Wikipedia.org, Ushahidi.com, PatientsLikeMe.com and Apache, Shirky makes a convincing argument for how small contributions from an aggregated pool of users can total massive usability and helpfulness to the whole, with users operating on a whole set of pre-existing intrinsic motivations that have only now been given the opportunity to shine.

He is not blind however, to the challenges that this revolution brings. He takes the “lolcats” aggregation website ICanHasCheezBurger.com on as the antithesis of what positive use of cognitive surplus should look like, noting that “for every remarkable project like Ushahidi or Wikipedia, there are countless pieces of throwaway work, created with little effort, and targeting no positive effect greater than crude humor” (p.17). He also admits that coordinating individuals and directing a group towards positive civic contribution is hard work; the capability, motivation, and opportunity may be present due to social media, but that does not immediately translate into communal good. Shirky here tells us that we are, therefore, presented with a choice: we can settle for burning our free time on low-brow shared creativity where “we get lolcats but no open source software, fan fiction but no improvement in medical research” (p. 180), or we can grapple with the realities of what it takes to bring together a committed group of core members with their own individual satisfaction at stake, to flesh out group effectiveness. “Understanding how to create and maintain [group effort],” suggests Shirky, “is one of the great challenges of our era” (p. 181).

The conclusion that Shirky draws above is, of course, nothing new. The challenge of any volunteer group striving for civic good is to maintain group effectiveness while ensuring that individual members achieve personal satisfaction from their efforts. However, the bonus of social media on a national or global scale says Shirky, is that the value created by any one group’s efforts has the potential to become valuable to a much larger audience; no longer are individual motivations the sole driver of creativity and collaboration, now social motivations are engaged on a global scale, driving participants on with an increased sense of value.

Cognitive Surplus is not a book outlining some great new revolutionary idea or invention. Rather, it is a book that gives the reader an idea of how to think about the great media revolution that we are in right now at this minute. And that is, in a nutshell, is this: the accidental restrictions on global creativity and sharing imposed upon people in the traditional media dominated world are now gone due to social media. Intrinsic motivations have been given the opportunity to be rediscovered, and capabilities for that have been made possible and cheap. It is now up to us as to whether or not we use this situation for civic good.

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September 4th, 2015

4th Sept 2015 – Presentation at the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand

September 1st, 2015

September 2015 – Visiting Scholar at the Center for Applied Cross Cultural Research at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

May 25th, 2015

1st July 2015 – New article about relational mobility and Internet privacy concern

March 25th, 2015

2015/03/25 – Accepted to the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Program

March 25th, 2015

2015/03/24 – Short piece in the Japan Society of Social Psychology Newsletter

March 7th, 2015

2015/03/06 – Presentation at Victoria University of Wellington School of Psychology’s Colloquium Talk Series

February 14th, 2015

2015/02/14 – WebLab Meeting Presentation (Tokyo Keizai University)

March 18th, 2014

In-mind Post of the Month

February 15th, 2014

In-Mind Post

February 5th, 2014

A summary of Yamagishi’s pen choice study