FREE SPEECH ZONE | Book review: Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age


Cognitive Surplus looks at how it is generosity that has made the internet we have today.

Reviewed by Nicholas P Heille

Jan. 30, 2011

Clay Shirky is a contemporary commentator on communications, who, as one reads him, is reminded of Marshall McLuhan, known for the quote: “The medium is the message”:  In Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age he says the message today is seen in the phenomena like Wikipedia where the free time available to individuals, to do as they wish, have created Wikipedia.

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As today’s individual hits the “publish/submit” button, their message is now available to everyone.  In this process one quickly realizes quality is never guaranteed.  Shirky uses the camera on today’s cell phone as an such an example, in the instantaneous world, one can only hope to be fortunate to capture the important photo that flashes across the internet.  Too often, especially amongst adolescents, those photos are but embarrassments, posted on sites like Facebook and YouTube.  Yet, within the commons, the place where people share ideas, one can find self-governance as well, that can lead to quality, which is what has happens with activities like E-Bay and Wikipedia. 

Shirky uses studies done by the likes of psychologist Edward Deci and economist Eleanor Ostrom to demonstrate how it is part of human nature to be generous, to share, and to self govern.  That we are motivated to, and have created, a culture of generosity.  (Note: “Motive” and “Culture” are two of the book’s chapter titles.)  Edward Deci, in 1970, created a psychological study of motivation that involves manipulation of wooden blocks.  In the study, still used today, participants, when asked to work with the blocks, Deci demonstrated, by observation, those who were paid to do the task were less inclined to perform the task than those allowed to do what they wanted, without financial remuneration.

Eleanor Ostrom, a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics, won the award for her explanation of how the commons can be governed by collective action.  That when given the opportunity, those in the commons are able to manage their resources.  Ostrom uses the management of common fishing grounds and pasture land to demonstrate the collective power of the commons.  How successful can the commons be?  Shirky points out: “Paul Resnick, a social media researcher at the University of Michigan, studied E-Bay’s reputation system and concluded that sellers with a positive reputation, as reported by their customers, could command an 8 percent premium on price over sellers who’ld just arrived at the site.”  It is the commons who keeps the seller honest.

It is through the generosity of cognitive surplus that we have open source computer code like Linux and Apace.  Linux is an operating system used mainly in internet applications by Dell, IBM, HP, Oracle, Novell, and Nokia; and, Apace is the primary way website http-web-page-code is displayed on a computer screen.  It is generosity that has made the internet we know of today.

Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is a thoughtful challenge to the reader.  As with other encounters with Shirky, you wonder if this is the time he does more than just loosen, but pulls Excalibur from the rock, and in turn explains, without a flaw, what today’s internet is all about.  To paraphrase Shirky: “Someday we may find Web 2.0’s mouse.”  Book is a great read, if only for an explanation of the innate spontaneous generosity of individuals.

(Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. by Clay Shirky. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2010)