Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading :: Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
By Clay Shirky

When I got this book in the mail, I started reading the plaudits on the back aloud. "Clay has long been one of my favorite thinkers on all things Internet." "Clay masterfully makes the connections." They seemed very impressed with me until I confessed that it was really Clay Shirky's book.

Okay, so maybe I'm a little envious. But Shirky earns those plaudits with clear, engaging writing and a thesis that is both unintuitive enough and intriguing enough to get people reading. In this case, the thesis is that economic changes have given us free time, and each generation finds ways to invest its free time. For newly industrialized London in the 1700s, the solution was gin. For 1950s US, it was the sitcom. For this generation, it's the Internet and other connectivity tools. That is, this generation's cognitive surplus is no longer completely wasted: people can actually make and share things. In one anecdote, Shirky recounts explaining Wikipedia to a TV producer, who sighs, "Where do they find the time?" "Hearing this, I snapped, and said, 'No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from.'" (p.9).

Bravo. As Shirky passionately argues, the TV generations spent enormous time in the basement comparing Ginger and Mary Ann. The Internet generation - some of it - spends time producing things. Those things might include the innumerable versions of "Bed Intruder" that I surfed on YouTube this morning, sure. But some include the blog post I'm currently writing, which may possibly help someone out, or Wikipedia, or fan fiction. That's not simply because of innate generational differences. "Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do" (p.121).

Overall, the book is well written and intriguing, and does a great job explaining how "makers" fit in and thrive. I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to figure out participatory culture - or trying to find some good pleasure reading.

No comments: