Why You Should Read Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cover of "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity a...

Cover via Amazon

Julian Harris Gibson

Review of Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

In the book “Cognitive Surplus”, Clay Shirky sparks an interesting discussion. By surplus, Shirky is referring to the spare time our brains now have due to our over consumption of media. Shirky argues that our addiction to media and modern lifestyles has left us a large amount of cognitive surplus to use however we wish.

In the first chapter Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus Shirky makes a brilliant analogy between the gin craze in 18th century London and the television craze of today. Shirky describes old-world Europe during this period as a place where the masses got so inebriated from drinking gin; they often could not function and needed to sleep it off in the streets and flophouses of London.

The craving for Gin became a disabling entity in English society due to the lack of steady work and strong family units. As the gin craze grew out of control, laws were passed to try to control this epidemic but they were vastly ineffective. Many people flocked to major cities and the institutional structures of metropolises like London were changed forever.

Shirky completes his analogy by explaining the television craze of the 20th century that has also changed our lives forever. Shirky states that through his extensive research he discovered that in every industrialized, so-called “First-World” nation, the three main societal activities are working, sleeping and watching television. Shirky also points to neuroscience that explains how our brains go into an auto-pilot mode after only a few minutes of watching television.  

Furthermore, Shirky argues that television is the gin equivalent to our modern generation. He goes on to explain how our entire societal structure has changed due to television.  For example, our levels of social interaction have declined steadily over the past fifty years. Conversely, Shirky states that TV consumption has steadily increased per capita each year in the same fifty year span.  

Furthermore, Shirky argues that television has raised our societal materialism and desire to consume instead of connect with each other. For example, Shirky makes the claim that about one hundred million hours have been spent watching television over the past five decades.

While I think this is Shirky’s best chapter, I must rebut some of his claims. For example, as our societal appetite for television has progressed, our viewing options have also expanded. In the early days of television, you only had three channels.  These channels were displayed in black and white and actually went off the air at a certain time of night. Nowadays, you have access to over a thousand channels all displaying content that attracts a niche audience. While this can sometimes separate us as a society, television has also allowed us to share awesome moments happening across the world in real-time as a global audience.

 For example, the Apollo moon landing was witnessed by millions of people in over 70 countries around the planet. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was a global watershed moment brought into our homes via the television. During Vietnam, the theater of war playing out on local news channels in full color was a large catalyst in launching the public push to end the war. The gruesome images of dead Americans being hauled off in stretchers was a far different scene from the still photos of WWI our grandparents saw in the daily newspaper. While television has its potential dangers, it also has its great benefits. Overall, I agree with Shirky’s premise that television and gin are similar. Both items can become vices if not consumed responsibly in moderation.  

Shirky’s subsequent chapters go on to support his rage against the machines. In the second chapter, Means, Shirky explains how society’s views of the internet have evolved over time.  Shirky details the beginnings of one-way media and explains how this model has been fighting its evil twin, multiple-path media since the rise of the internet. I use the term “multiple-path media” to explain how consumers of media can not only respond to the producer of content directly through the internet; they can also converse within various groups and report on the feedback gathered to new consumers. This phenomenon is often called “viral” where information spreads through digital platforms almost instantaneously like a viral infection.  In fact, I would argue that this viral activity debunks Shirky’s theory of gloom and doom due to a societal overdose of television.

A piece of content cannot go viral without communication between individuals. For example, when your friend sends you a link to a funny video, you often click on the link because it has been pre-screened and deemed worthy of your time. This third-party credibility factor, in my opinion, is the purest form of validation a producer of content can hope for. Thus, society may not have all been brainwashed by the boob-tube after all.

Shirky argues that social media giants like Facebook and YouTube have taken advantage of societies desire to be famous. However, I feel these platforms are really at the mercy of the mob. For example, a few years ago, MySpace was the darling of the social media world. However, once anyone and everyone started decorating their pages with large, ugly, HTML—the party quickly became lame. Thus, the people still decide collectively what is cool and functional and as long as those are the rules of engagement, I feel society still has the upper hand on Silicon Valley’s best and brightest coders and entrepreneurs.

Shirky explains how the small audiences during the internet’s beginnings allowed us to classify online activities as separate from the real world. However, this was a great oversight in Shirky’s opinion. Now that the internet has woven itself into almost every facet of the human existence, Shirky feels this abundance of means has created a world where the former consumers are now the producers of content themselves. This can be viewed as a good thing from a social interactivity perspective. However, Shirky makes a sound argument that this phenomenon can lead to danger due to the oversaturation of content and disinformation.  

For example, Shirky tells the tale of South Korean demonstrators who organized massive public demonstrations against US Beef due to a report the group members saw on the internet. 

While this may seem like a win for social responsibility and technology integrating with social interaction, it really shows how misinformation spread through the internet and interpreted as truth in other cultures can have dire consequences.

The book has other flashes of greatness in the later chapters. Shirky makes a strong argument in the fourth chapter, Opportunity. In this chapter, Shirky explains the human tendency to disregard a technology once a newer, sleeker model is released. We often think of newer as better; however, Shirky warns us to not abandon the tools that are functional for the sake of the newest craze.

An example not discussed in the book of this argument is the mobile phone wars. Apple’s latest edition of the iPhone was released as the latest, greatest inspiration from the minds of Apple engineers. However, Apple fanatics waiting in lines for days were disappointed by the phone’s glitches. The breaking point may have been the failure of the iPhone’s maps application. Since the reporting of this failure, Apple has suffered embarrassment and backlash about its labor practices.  Overall, Shirky does a good job in this chapter of explaining our habits of coveting novelty over reliability.

The later chapters cover a various amount of topics including culture and our tendency to be less selfish in a public setting. These chapters make compelling arguments about our decision-making process in various situations. However, Shirky loses his thread a little and seems to maintain a melancholy outlook that drags down the mood of the reader.

While he does make many valid observations, Shirky’s writing style can be professorial at times and come off as somewhat condescending.  I feel Shirky should give society more credit for being independently minded individuals who are capable of evolving and interacting without training wheels.

Lastly, Shirky redeems himself somewhat in the final chapter, Looking for the Mouse. In this chapter he finally acknowledges that while humans consume more television and media than ever before; all that consuming has made us very picky.  With unlimited choices of media to consume, the need for eye-catching content is more vital than ever. Shirky keenly explains that producers can have a large group of users, an active group of users or a group of users all paying attention to the same thing. Shirky warns the reader that you can only maintain two out of the three choices and cannot have all three. This observation is very astute and helps bring the book full circle.

In conclusion, I feel Shirky presents a compelling argument that forces the reader to do some contemplating of their own and decide if they agree or disagree with Shirky’s arguments. If this book can be revised to fit a more optimistic audience, I feel it will become very popular in marketing and media science circles.  


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