Book review: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

I remember that maybe one year ago Lane Becker (@monstro) occasionally tweeted some quotes from a book called Cognitive Surplus. At that time I knew nothing about the book and little about the author: Clay Shirky. I made amends of the later when choosing “Here Comes Everybody” as my summer reading last year (check my review here) and was quite impressed with the writings of Shirky. So impressed that Cognitive Surplus was a top priority on my reading backlog.

The opportunity finally came at the beginning of June when I was enjoying a week off. I read it in 4 days (believe me, I’m not a fast reader) and absolutely loved it!

Let me give you my recommendation upfront: if you want to understand the true value of social media – not the technological aspect of the phenomenon but its potential for your life, community, and society in general – read this book!

The tweetable summary of the book (my proposal) is as follow:

We now have the means, motive & opportunity to apply our free time (cognitive surplus) for the benefit of a collective bigger purpose.

And you’re still left with some characters to insert one emoticon 🙂

For a more detailed summary of central premise of the book, I take to the words of Shirky itself:

One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we now can treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.

Society has experienced an increase in free time, especially since the end of Second World War with life expectancy rising and live conditions improving. But with cities increasing in size, and suburban areas proliferating, the traditional sense of neighbourhood and community got somehow lost along the way. So what did families do with their free time? Simple: they watched TV!

What Shirky now draws attention to is the fact that, for the first time in history, “being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens” with social technology providing the means for that global connectedness. Couple this with motive (intrinsic motivations as so well debated by Daniel Pink in Drive) and opportunity (to spur group actions apparently uncoordinated and acting to create value for a group/community/society in general) and you have a recipe for human action at an unprecedented scale!

The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things. We, collectively, aren’t just the force of the surplus; we are also the people designing its use, by our participation and by the things we expect one another as we wrestle together with our new connectedness.

This last quote is to me one of the key ideas of the book: we are not only the “suppliers” of our cognitive surplus, we also make decisions on what that surplus will be invested!

I sure know what I’m doing with mine (and have come to realize after reading this book the potential and importance of my choices)… and watching TV is not really part of the list. What are you doing with your cognitive surplus?

PS – I sure hope Clay Shirky will continue writing books 🙂


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