Thursday, June 24, 2010

As Much Chaos As We Can Stand

Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2010
242 pgs.

I have finally finished reading Clay Shirky's phenomenal new book Cognitive Surplus and I have been blown away by it from beginning to end. Shirky, a professor at NYU, explores how the default settings inherent in social media software are driving not only how we connect with each other, but about the kinds of massive projects that we can create if we spend even just a modicum of our free time (time usually spent watching television) contributing to them.

The depth of this book is difficult to summarize, but let me give it a shot.

Each of us has an amount of time, thanks to the labor struggles of the twentieth century, with which we can do what we will (our cognitive surplus, i.e. leftover brain time). With the advent of television we slowly became consumers of a passive media environment, so much so that many of us watched enough television that it could be considered equivalent to having a part time job. This wasn't because we necessarily wanted to be couch potatoes, but this was the environment we had. It was a default pattern, not necessarily a desired state of being.

With the introduction of the internet we began developing a different pattern of social behavior toward our media. From the creation of ASCII art as a humble little creative endeavor in early emails we have progressed to an era where we can create our own original videos and share them with the entire world. Beyond even that we have also grown to the point where massive, globally shared projects, like Wikipedia are made possible by the dedicated efforts of millions of people spending time creating content instead of being a passive receptacle of pre-packaged media.

What drives us to create and share things like lolcats, fan fiction and YouTube videos, or to participate in large scale protests or create alternative news reporting outlets?

Shirky's answer: we have the means and opportunity to do so, for free, and the software that has been designed to support these structures promotes an environment of creating and sharing. These things have always been going on, but the ability to share our personal creative works, or to participate in a mutually creative and supportive environment has just not been available at this scale ever before. We all know people who wrote fan stories of their favorite television show, or who went to conventions and shared their hobbies with each other. Social media allows us to not only find those people who share our interests, however bizarre they may be, but to engage in them with an unprecedented level of speed and freedom, thus nurturing subcultures to greater heights.

Beyond the level of subcultures we have begun to develop massive multi-user created systems that have a great deal of civic value. Projects like developing open source software like Linux or Apache, creating articles for Wikipedia or reporting news on Ushahidi have become invaluable resources to society. These works could not have been done without the ability to connect disparate people who have a shared ethic, vision and need via social media.

The long term view of how the internet is shaping our society has yet to be seen, and the examples he provides of similar revolutions in communications show that one can never really predict where we will be fifty or a hundred years from now. What Shirky does provide however is a bit of a roadmap outlining what factors lead to successful social media environments, and an excellent review of how far we've come in just a few short years.

This was one of the most engrossing reads I've had in quite a long time. Fun, informative, and a great amount of positive speculation about the internet. I strongly recommend it, not just for people who have internet wonkery as an interest, but for pretty much anyone who has a deep love for culture. The stories are thought provoking, funny, scary and over all brilliant.

Check it out!

No comments: