Over at the Barnes and Noble Review, I have a short review of Cognitive Surplus, the new book by Clay Shirky:
Cognitive Surplus, the new book by internet guru Clay Shirky, begins with a brilliant analogy. He starts with a description of London in the 1720s, when the city was in the midst of a gin binge. A flood of new arrivals from the countryside meant the metropolis was crowded, filthy, and violent. As a result, people sought out the anesthesia of alcohol as they tried to collectively forget the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
For Shirky, the gin craze of 18th-century London is an example of what happens when societies undergo abrupt changes, such as the shift from rural agriculture to urban factories. Life becomes a bewildering struggle, and so we self-medicate the struggle away. But Shirky isn’t a historian, and this isn’t a history book. Instead, he’s trying to grapple with our future. As he notes, the second half of the 20th century has been defined by a similarly difficult social transition, as we move into a post-industrialized world characterized by the incessant flow of information.
So what has been our gin? Shirky’s answer is simple, perhaps too simple. He argues that the television sitcom–those comic soap operas that saturated the airwaves for decades–was the alcohol of post-war societies, “absorbing the lion’s share of the free time available to the developed world.” (The numbers are depressing: even today, Americans sit through a hundred million hours of TV commercials every weekend.) Instead of fretting about the dislocations of the Information Age, we sat on the couch and watched Gilligan’s Island.
But now, Shirky says, the reign of television is coming to an end. For the first time in decades, a few select cohorts of those under the age of 30 seem to be watching less TV than their parents. (Shirky doesn’t mention that overall television consumption is still rising. According to Nielsen’s media tracking survey, the amount of time the average American spent in front of the tube reached 153 hours per month in 2009, the highest level ever recorded.) But if young people aren’t watching quite as many mindless sitcoms, and they’re not drunk in the streets, then what the hell are they doing?
They’re online, prowling the world wide web. Shirky describes this shift in media consumption as a net “cognitive surplus,” since our brain is no longer mesmerized by the boob tube. Needless to say, he describes this surplus as a wonderful opportunity, a chance to get back some of the productive social interactions that were lost when we all decided to watch TV alone. And when this new pool of free time is combined with the internet–a tool that enables strangers all across the world to connect with each other–the end result is a potentially vast new source of productivity. “The wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource,” Shirky writes. Furthermore, the web allows people to “design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.”
My main quibble with the book is that Shirky completely undervalues the worth of critical analysis and intelligent media consumption:
After getting enthralled by the opening premise of the book, I expected Shirky to have a long list of exciting new examples of our surplus at work. This is where the book gets slightly disappointing. From Wikipedia, Shirky takes us on a tour of … lolcats. He cites ICanHasCheezburger.com as an example of what happens when our cognitive surplus is transformed into “the stupidest possible creative act.” While Shirky pokes fun at the site, he still argues that it represents a dramatic improvement over the passive entertainment of television. “The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap.”
There are two things to say about this. The first is that the consumption of culture is not always worthless. Is it really better to produce yet another lolcat than watch The Wire? And what about the consumption of literature? By Shirky’s standard, reading a complex novel is no different than imbibing High School Musical, and both are less worthwhile than creating something stupid online. While Shirky repeatedly downplays the importance of quality in creative production–he argues that mediocrity is a necessary side effect of increases in supply–I’d rather consume greatness than create yet another unfunny caption for a cat picture.
Furthermore, I think Shirky misunderstands the nature of cultural consumption. In Cognitive Surplus, the unstated assumption is that all culture is roughly equivalent to a bad sitcom: it’s entirely mindless and utterly passive. But I think this dismal view is mostly wrong. One doesn’t need to invoke Derrida to know that reading a text is often a creative act, that we must constantly impose meaning onto the ambiguity of words. (And this isn’t just true of poetry. A few days ago, I had a long chat with an adolescent about the deep themes of the Twilight Saga.) Sure, there is no lolcat to post online after a session of critical reading, but we have done something; the mind has not been squandering itself. And that’s why I find Shirky’s definition of creativity so peculiar and soulless: he seems to conclude that, unless there is a physical or visual residue of our thought, we haven’t dont anything worthwhile. I think that’s wrong. I certainly had absolutely nothing to do with the making of The Sopranos, but I’ve wrestled with the unresolved ending for the last three years. I’ve contemplated the meaning of Journey lyrics and ruminated on the implicit moral message of the show (or lack thereof). Shirky thinks such thoughts are the intellectual equivalent of a gin binge or an afternoon spent with Zack Morris. But I would disagree. In some peculiar way, if I hadn’t watched and re-watched The Sopranos then this sentence wouldn’t exist. (And I would have missed out on many interesting, intelligent conversations…) The larger point, I guess, is that before we can produce anything meaningful, we need to consume and absorb, and think about what we’ve consumed and absorbed. That’s why Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, said we must become a camel (drinking up everything) before we can become a lion, and properly rebel against the strictures of society. Of course, after we turn into a lion, Nietzsche said we must return to the “innocence and forgetting” of childhood, which is the last and wisest stage of being. That is presumably when we make all those lolcats.