Book review: Cognitive Surplus

A review of Clay Shirky’s second book on the power of social networking and collaboration, Cognitive Surplus, first published in the Observer, June 2010

Every single year for the second half of the 20th century, the amount of television watched by humanity increased. Collectively, we now watch more than one trillion hours of television every year – something not entirely unlike, as Clay Shirky sees it, tipping the free time of the world’s educated citizenry (their “cognitive surplus”) down an intellectual plughole. It’s not that television is evil, or even bad. It’s just that, as a medium, it’s incredibly good at soaking up leisure and producing very few tangible results. It tells stories, it makes people feel less alone, it passes the time. It is, Shirky ventures, a little like gin in 1720s London, helping people cope with modernity by gently blurring the edges of their reality.

The point of departure for this, Shirky’s second book, is an unprecedented fact. For the first time in history, the amount of television being watched by a younger generation is decreasing rather than increasing annually. Why? Because time is being poured instead into interactive media, and above all into online activities. The key word here is “activities”, for the defining feature of new media is action. As readers of Shirky’s previous book, the 2008 hit Here Comes Everybody, will know, his is one of the most influential voices in the social networking movement, arguing that the sudden lowering of the cost of collaboration brought by the internet represents revolutionary new kinds of creativity and problem‑solving.

Cognitive Surplus expands on this theme in as lucid and assured a style as its predecessor, carefully displaying the collective projects that even a fraction of the world’s television time might be turned into instead. Americans alone watch about 200bn hours of television a year: that represents, Shirky notes, about 2,000 times the total human hours that have gone so far into creating Wikipedia.

Not that every collaborative project could be a Wikipedia, of course. But what even the most spurious uses of socially networked media can offer (think cute cats with comically misspelled captions) is equal opportunities for all simultaneously to consume, produce and share. This is the holy triathlon of new media, and Shirky points out that these three activities are fundamental impulses that broadcast media have until recently served in a deeply unbalanced manner.

The key to the radical nature of the social change all this implies is scale. If you think 200bn hours of television is a lot, consider the fact that there are now 2 billion people online across the world, and more than 3 billion with mobile phones. Given that there are around 4.5 billion adults worldwide, Shirky points out that “we live, for the first time in history, in a world where being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens”.

With this many people involved, the collective leverage that can be brought to bear on any particular project or problem is colossal. Whether it’s “couch surfers” pooling resources to create an international network of sofas for each other to sleep on, or the open-source community of programmers that maintains Apache, a free program that now drives more than 60% of the servers constituting the internet itself, the world’s collective cognitive surplus is already being put to transforming uses. And the fun, Shirky says, is only just beginning.

There are those who have proved either allergic or immune to Shirky’s particular brand of optimism, arguing that the power of social media is extremely limited in the face of many intractable real-world problems, and can even exacerbate them, both by making it easier to track activists and by displacing energies that might have been better expended elsewhere. To accuse Shirky of preaching a panacea, though, is to misunderstand the simplest fact about the emerging technological and social landscape he describes: that it represents not so much a replacement of existing systems as a restoration of many far older and more intimate kinds of human relations.

As a route towards action, rather than an escape from it, technology and media have never looked more potent than they do today. And perhaps the most amazing fact about Shirky’s incisive manual for building a better world is this: it’s just possible that everything he promises may be true.