Cognitive Surplus

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 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.


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As usual, very interesting review. If I understand you right, you're not entirely disagreeing about the possibilities opened up by new media. You're just pointing out that Shirky's characterization of consumption may overstate the cognitive surplus left over by the act.

If I wanted to guess how Shirky might respond, then I would say that you, in turn, have taken a particular view of how we consume. Not everybody is engaged with the text in the active way you describe; critical consumption is a skill, which must be learned, even mastered. Perhaps most important to critical consumption is the need for questions, hypotheses, or theories we can test through critical consumption. You may be too optimistic in assuming that the average consumer is aware of such things, although they must have them, and awareness might be elicited through questioning.

You both have your points. To me it seems that in-person conversation is still the most addictive, high-bandwidth experience available to anybody. Although I haven't read the book yet, and don't know if or how he addresses the question, for me the puzzle is why do we run a cognitive surplus in an age in which we ought to be able as a culture, if not individually, to have as much in-person interaction as we might want.

It's almost as if technology is blowing a cognitive bubble, in which we experience more and more gains in economic productivity through specialization and globalization, but at the ultimate long-term cost of less and less satisfaction in our day-to-day experience.

Nice tie-in on Nietzsche. Further, from his aphorisms, "A man's maturity --consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play." Still developing some thinking along these lines, as the aphorism seems to echo Suzuki's beginner's mind idea. Of course, one could go on, pondering the works of thinkers like sociologist Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity, in which the structures and strictures of society have been metaphorically melted away. If society has become liquid, per Bauman, then does that imply that there is less to react to? (Rhethorical question)

Shirky's clowning about is iterative; he identifies a 'massive creative cognitive surplus', then holds the mirror for the audience to contemplate his own celebrity status as proof positive that Internet Idiocy runs deep, and it's profitable too. Of course he drags out lolcats; the analogy is perfect and very, very funny, I'm laughing out loud right now. It's interesting that he can expose the trick and it still delights.

My guess is that, overall, the legacy of the work will be a classic Doyle "Dog that Didn't Bark"; after 40+ years of Internet we have Wikipedia, lolcats, and a cheeseburger thing as the crown jewels. Oh, and Shirky.

This is quite lovely, Jonah; hats off. One thing implicit in your post I'd like to pull out into the open; struck my mind when you mentioned the many good conversations you'd had with people about the Sopranos. One problem with Shirky's take here (though it has its assets, as you point out) is that it implicitly undervalues things that don't show up on the Net -- things like those conversations you've had about the Sopranos. Those conversations are my concern here. True, it's hard to overstate how wonderful it is that you and I and others can have these online conversations, and how fluidly many online communities (the science writing community, for example) incorporate new ideas and new people, including newcomers who previously faced much stiffer barriers to joining the conversation. So yes: the net is a wonderful thing, harnessing much new energy and reclaiming much time otherwise wasted. I share his (and your) horror at how much time Americans spend watching TV, most of which, to my eye, is horrific.

But as you note, Shirky's thesis seems to risk discounting or outright ignoring the value not just of reading Faulkner or Elmore Leonard or Harry Potter, or of watching The Wire or a DVD of the Godfather (oh glory!); it risks discounting the meatspace conversations we might have with spouses, lovers, friends, siblings, or neighbors about those same (and other) experiences.

Shirky has a nice central point, which is that online networks can harness cognitive surplus as people engage media and each other online. But the quality of the engagement should count for something, and engagements â whether with media or another person -- isn't automatically more valuable because it takes place in the online world.

I'm going to sign off now -- so I can take my two kids down to the farmer's market, where we rarely buy anything, but talk with a lot of neighbors and dogs.

Interesting review. I want to echo Michael Martin's excellent comment: I think you both have points here. The key insight of Here Comes Everybody (for me at least) was that, before the internet, we did 'small things for love and big things for money'. The internet makes it possible to do "big things" (like writing an encyclopedia, for example) for love. (Note: I haven't read Cognitive Surplus).

In a sense, then, your criticism, while accurate, is beside the point. Before the internet, people did "important" things in their free time, and "unimportant" things in their free time. Because it radically lowers the costs of cooperation and coordination, the internet has increased the number of possible "important" things people can do in their free time. And some people - bless them - DO use their free time in this way.

Has "important" online activities displaced "important" offline activities? Or, more systematically, has the proportion of "important" activities the average person engages in gone up or down since the internet has gone mainstream? I don't know, but I suspect "important" things are winning out on watching silly TV shows.

P.s. I must protest: lolcats are awesome.

I don't see how Shirky can rationally advocate creating culture when he sees consumption of the same as futile - this seems to be a fundamental flaw w/ his reasoning.

I never fail to be impressed by the depth of your articles, Jonah. This is one of the richest, most thoughtful, and best balanced discussions of the issues Shirky raises that I've seen so far. I think you really capture the crucial elements regarding both the cognitive aspects of the questions and the media analysis perspective. Kudos!

As always, a complex, thoughtful review -- and one that makes me want to read the book for myself. Thanks, Jonah.
P.S. I think you asked one of the most important questions of our time (and if it isn't one of the most important, surely it's one of the most entertaining): 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?
Lol. Classic!

By Tracy Koehler (not verified) on 19 Jun 2010 #permalink

As a college student, I have to say that I don't watch much TV. But when I do watch it, it's on my computer, rather than on the TV. I think Shirky is missing the fact that the internet can be gin as well. On TV, you can only watch Lost once a week. On your computer, you can binge and watch all 6 seasons within a month if you so prefer (as many college students I know have done).

I want to comment on one statement you made: "I'd rather consume greatness than create yet another unfunny caption for a cat picture."

Well, I wouldn't. Naturally I would rather create a funny caption or something even better, but every time I "consume greatness" I find myself tempted to create something suggested by it and impatient to be done with what I am consuming.

People are different. I am glad you are different because you consume various great and ungreat books and your reviews give me a good lead on what to read. I have had good friends who were basically critics (shrewd and motivated consumers who will tell you all about something) in some special field, and they are great, I am glad they exist, but I and many others are not like that.

This difference between critics and (shall we say) compulsive creators has lurked in the back of my mind for years and I am glad you made me aware of it. Has anyone studied these two types of people in depth?

Charles Wells

It seems that the WWW and Television are both evolving to the next level of knowledge dissemination. Your quote from Nietzsche reminded me of his view of how the sciences evolved over the ages: "Do you really believe that the sciences would ever have originated and grown if the way had not been prepared by magicians, alchemists, astrologers and witches whose promises and pretensions first had to create a thirst, a hunger, a taste for hidden and forbidden powers? Indeed, infinitely more had to be promised than could ever be fulfilled in order that anything at all might be fulfilled in the realms of knowledge." Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 20 Jun 2010 #permalink

I think the author's premise is bunk. I think the only thing you're seeing a CHANGE in viewing habits and a refusal to see they are functionally equivalent. Instead of passively watching the TV, people are passively watching Anime clips, or some other such stuff, on YouTube, Hulu, etc., via the Internet.

It's like changing from Horror to Science Fiction in your reading... One genre goes down, the other goes up, they're (in the larger picture) functionally equivalent.

I commented on this article, but for some reason after hitting preview and submit it informed me that the comment would be moderated. Twas a lengthy comment. After looking into it more it seems hitting preview before submitting forces moderation, but just submitting does not.

In the same vein as making quality art, let's make quality use of Nietzsche. His camel isn't a consumer of everything (...camels drink a lot?), but a passive beast of burden carrying the weight of society.

Your point is understood, but mostly by changing what he means in his passage into something that fits your narrative.

It's much more difficult to write something meaningful than to read and digest something meaningful. Good writers have always been the elite and branded few, and in the age of lolcats are becoming the elite and branded fewer. But the reach of today's instantaneous chatter through micro-updates on easily leveraged social platforms facilitates a torrent of meaningful information that is forcing us to evolve beyond the inefficiencies of the written word.