June 10, 2010
In Cognitive Surplus, Internet guru Clay Shirky forecasts the thrilling changes we will all enjoy as new digital technology puts our untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last.
Since Americans were suburbanized and educated by the postwar boom, we’ve had a surfeit of intellect, energy, and time – what Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus.” But this abundance had little impact on the common good because television consumed the lion’s share of it. Now, the first time, people are embracing new media that allows us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind-expanding – reference tools like Wikipedia – to life-saving – like Ushahidi.com, which has allowed Kenyans to report on acts of violence in real time.
Shirky charts the vast effects that are cognitive surplus – aided by new technologies – will have on twenty-first-century society and how we can best exploit those effects. For instance, he acknowledges that new tech brings greater freedom to publish and hence lower quality on average. But it also allows for the sort of experimentation that produces our greatest innovations. Shirky also assesses the transformative impact of online culture, which is by definition more transparent than traditional management structures.
The potential impact of cognitive surplus is enormous. Wikipedia, which was built out of roughly 1 percent of the man-hours that Americans spend watching TV every year, is only the iceberg’s tip. Shirky shows how society and our daily lives will be improved dramatically as we learn to exploit our goodwill and free time like never before.
Clay Shirky teaches that the Interactive telecommunications Program at New York University and is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He has consulted with groups working on network design, including Nokia, the BBC, Newscorp., Microsoft, BP, Global Business Network, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Navy, the Libyan government, and LEGO. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London), Harvard Business Review, Business 2.0, and Wired.