Review: Cognitive Surplus


Author: Clay Shirky
Rating: Rating

People have a lot more free time than they used to, Clay Shirky argues, and while we used to fill it almost exclusively with TV, things are starting to change. We now have the means, motive, and opportunity to do something different with our time, to tap into a great cognitive surplus that allows us to pool our cumulative resources and creativity. Social media tools and platforms allow us to produce things, share information, and collaborate in groups outside the forces of market economics or traditional managerial structures. Many may only be creating lolcats pictures, but that’s just one point on the spectrum of creativity; the other end involves creativity used for not only public good, but also to drive significant (if not revolutionary) social change. Cognitive Surplus is a cogent and thoughtful analysis of these social and technological advancements, and of the human behaviors behind them.

Rather than a traditional review, what follows below is my detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book, with key arguments, concepts and examples highlighted. For additional reviews and information about the ideas behind Cognitive Surplus:

Chapter 1: Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus

In 1720s London, society washed away the newfound stresses of urban life with gin, and lots of it. Television and the sitcom in particular, Shirky argues, was our modern version of gin, and helped us deal with post-industrial transformation and the concomitant explosion in free time we collectively experienced.

After World War II, for much of the world, GDP levels increased steadily, along with levels of education and life span. These changes, while generally positive, led to some changes in living patterns. Commuting, frequent relocation for work, and a spread from dense cities and tightly knit rural communities meant people were investing less in “relational activities” (i.e., spending time with others). We got lonely, and we turned to the TV as a “social surrogate,” getting to the point where Americans were consuming it at the rate of 200 billion hours a year.

Shirky met with a television producer at one point to discuss the ideas in his previous book (Here Comes Everybody). In the course of their discussion, they talked about user-generated content and Wikipedia, wherein he related some of the editing wars that went on about the Pluto page. Instead of asking deeper questions about motivations or social media tools, the producer just asked, “Where do people find the time?” In Shirky’s mind, the answer is obvious: they just watch a little bit less TV. By his estimates, the sum total of Wikipedia probably represents about 100 million person-hours of effort. With that metric, one year’s worth of America’s time in front of the TV could produce 2000 Wikipedias. As he puts it:

Any shift, however minor, in the way we use a trillion hours of free time a year is likely to be a big deal. (pp. 22-23)

But something interesting is happening for the first time in 50 years: people are starting to watch less TV. A shift is occurring (in some cohorts) to free interactive media, where there is no presupposition of pure consumption. The people formerly known as the audience are changing their behavior in response to new forms of media.

Shirky doesn’t find this surprising at all, and spends a good deal of time analyzing why others do find this shift perplexing. He calls it a Milkshake Mistake, which has two components:

  1. An assumption that the attributes of a thing are more important than what people want to actually do with it. In the context of media, this means a focus on the tools over behaviors.
  2. A mistaken belief that habits are deeply rooted traditions, when in many cases, they’re just a series of accumulated accidents. In this sense, pure consumption of media was habit, not tradition, and once the barriers to participation were removed, the accident of pure consumption was exposed.

And so we enter an era of heightened participation and creative acts, where some of the time previously spent passively absorbing TV can be used to do something more creative. The results may not always be Earth shattering; Shirky uses lolcats as representative of the “stupidest possible creative act.” Even though this kind of creativity has minimal social value, it does two things:

  1. It bridges the gap between doing something (anything) and doing nothing (i.e., being a couch potato)
  2. It tells people “You can play this game, too,” a subtle shift in the power of creativity and publishing media, where now anyone can publish something for all the world to see (however inane)

As a result, we are now at a point where the word media needs to be redefined. Old meanings centered on the material of media, and the collection of businesses used to produce it; the new world is different. New definitions of media need to recognize the sea change that’s occurring, as the people formerly known as the audience begin to contribute, create, share, and generate value across a spectrum from personal to civic.

The existence of free time isn’t a sufficient condition, though, for Shirky’s cognitive surplus to be a big deal for humanity. We’ve had free time before, but we squandered it; so what’s different now? It boils down to whether people do something with their time other than just consume, and whether they have the means, motive and opportunity to tap into the cognitive surplus and produce something of value.

Chapter 2: Means

The logic of digital media…allows the people formerly known as the audience to create value for one another every day. (p. 42)

In the past, making things public and available to a wide audience was difficult, complex and expensive. And then someone made a free piece of web-based software that has a button marked Publish, and everything changed. In a relative heartbeat, the old world of Gutenberg economics vanished, and a new era was ushered in where making things public is cheap, easy and readily available. We now have the means.

Gutenberg economics is one of the most important ideas Shirky raises in this chapter. Prior to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, the notion of publishing didn’t even really exist. Books were scarce and expensive, hand copied, and covered a very small universe of ideas. It was so expensive and time-intensive, in fact, that people didn’t even think about creating new works of fiction. They just thought about replicating (and possibly augmenting) existing works. And then Gutenberg invented the printing press and everything changed.

Suddenly, making books was cheaper and easier, and people had the brilliant idea that new books could be created (i.e., “novels,” which is where the word gained its dual meaning for both new and book). This possibility dramatically increased the number of books that could exist, but it also created an interesting situation for the newly created publisher. If they decide to print a new book for which the demand is unclear, and no one buys it, then they’re out the money and effort it took to print, not to mention what they invested in the printing press.

If it’s expensive to own and manage the means of production…you’re in the world of Gutenberg economics. (p. 45)

So how did publishers manage risk in the world of Gutenberg economics? Simple. They took on the responsibility for the quality of what they published. Producers had to decide what was good before they could enter into the costly risk of publishing and distributing it. Gutenberg economics is just a 15th-century exercise in risk management that has existed up until recently. But now that we have our button marked Publish, the economics of risk management has been transformed…Publishing has been exposed as having accidental (not inherent) value that was driven by Gutenberg economics and the printing press.

What are the consequences of such a radical change in the economics of publishing?

  1. The freedom to publish diminishes the average quality of all work published
  2. Experimentation in form increases (i.e., people can publish, then let the audience filter what they think is worth reading)
  3. Definitions of quality become more variable
  4. Distinctions are drawn (and arguments break out) over the difference between “professional” media and “amateur” media, and where the dividing line is (if anywhere)

Abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time, experimentation pays off, diversity expands the range of the possible, and the best work becomes better than what went before. (p. 51)

All of this doesn’t mean the end of the world for quality, publicly available work. Publishing after the death of Gutenberg economics just means that we get both good and bad works out in the public domain. It’s all going to be ok, despite the hysterics and hand-wringing of pundits like Andrew Keen (Cult of the Amateur).

[The] shift to post-Gutenberg economics, with its interchangeably perfect versions and conversational capabilities, with its symmetrical production and lows costs, provides the means for much of the generous, social, and creative behavior we’re seeing. (p. 56)

So people now have the means to share ideas publicly, to create, to participate on a grand scale, with almost no barrier to entry. But why would they? To answer this question, Shirky takes a deeper look at human behavior and motivation.

Chapter 3: Motive

Some classic, and still controversial, studies done by Edward Deci in the 1970s showed that people have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for their behaviors. Extrinsic motivations are external rewards (like money) that act as a stimulus. Intrinsic motivations are things we do for ourselves, based on our own desires. What Deci showed was that the presence of an external motivations can “crowd out” intrinsic motivations when removed. In other words, if you pay me to do something that I used to do for free and then take the money away, I will be less likely to do it for free any more.

Theories about intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for behavior are critical to ideas of cognitive surplus, which hinge on people choosing to create and contribute when there’s no obvious extrinsic motivation for doing so. Intrinsic motivations fall into two rough classes:

  1. “Personal” motivations: These are things related to our conception of self, independent of others. Two basic motivators exist: the desire to be autonomous (i.e., control what we do and how we do it) and the desire to be competent.
  2. “Social” motivations: We are part of a society, and at the core of our being, we are hopelessly committed to both being an individual and being part of that society. As a result, there are deep intrinsic motivators that are social, namely: connectedness (a feeling of membership) and sharing (the desire to be generous, and conversely to punish those who are not). Although Shirky doesn’t make the point, this seems quite reasonable from the standpoint of evolution and the improved odds of survival in cooperating groups.

With a foundation for human motivations, we can look at how people behaved in the past when it came to public and private work. In the past, there were really just two classes of behaviors:

  1. Amateurs, acting from intrinsic motivations, work mostly in private doing things that they love and find rewarding
  2. Extrinsically motivated (i.e., paid) professionals work in public

But now the public-private obstacle separating the pros from the amateurs has been removed. Amateurs no longer have to act in private on the things they care about and enjoy. Suddenly, this can spill into the public sphere. But why would it? Why not just keep toiling on that train set in the basement? Because now we have the opportunity to tap into both our personal and our social intrinsic motivations.

If intrinsic motivations are fundamental to human nature, and satisfying them satisfies us, then the use of tools that satisfy those behaviors should spread. (p. 86)

Our motivations for using these [social media] tools are the ancient, intrinsic ones, motivations previously remanded to the private sphere, but now bursting out in public. (p. 95)

We’ve got the means in our new world of post-Gutenberg economics, and we’ve got the motive built into our genes. Do we have the opportunity?

Chapter 4: Opportunity

A surprise is the feeling of an old belief breaking. (p. 100)

In this chapter, Shirky’s argument wandered for me a bit, to be honest. It seemed less a question of whether the opportunity exists to participate in creative acts, to connect with others, to tap into these new tools — clearly it does, and he’s established this throughout the book. Rather, the question becomes, do we actually participate, and do we do it in a way that invites others to do the same? Are these resources suddenly available to all of us used effectively and in a way that supports ongoing participation?

Given the public nature of the tools and forums described, one natural question to ask is, Are they subject to the tragedy of the commons? Seminal work by Elinor Ostrom and Yochai Benkler has shown that under certain conditions, commons-based systems can work well:

  1. Mutually visible action among participants
  2. Credible commitment to shared goals
  3. Group members’ ability to punish infractions

Ostrom believes the selfish behaviors seen in a lot of institutions arise precisely because they are not designed with these foundational principles in mind:

When we assume people are principally selfish, we design systems that reward selfish people.

The most successful creative and collaborative projects (e.g., the Apache web server, Linux) are explicitly designed to avoid these traps. They don’t necessarily assume people act solely out of self interest, but they make it possible for social forces to correct destructive behaviors when they threaten to discourage or disrupt participation. Shirky amplifies this point by arguing that if systems are designed with “social” as the default (cf. Kevin Kelly’s Triumph of the Default), they are more likely to succeed and capitalize on the better aspects of people’s societally minded behaviors. It all boils down to new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives.

The Internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities, at lower cost and with less hassle than ever before, and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history. (p. 129)

Chapter 5: Culture

Collaboration in groups is complicated and often fraught with challenges. A constant tension exists between the goals of the group and the goals of the individuals within it. Shirky argues that an essential component in this new world of small group collaboration is the creation and maintenance of a shared culture (i.e., a collectively held set of norms and behaviors within the group). Additionally this culture needs to be established outside the realm of market forces, which can often have anti-social effects (as illustrated with Gneezy and Rusticini’s A Fine is a Price).

Shirky uses the Invisible College as an example of culture gone right. The group of 17th century scientists who participated in this group held fast to a solid set of principles (culture), which ultimately benefitted their collaboration and scientific progress. The alchemists of the time, on the other hand, were not so well organized; they had no codified culture, and as a result their ideas (and ultimate success in the world of science) suffered.

To further amplify his point, Shirky brings up the notion of “combinability” of ideas, referencing the work of Foray, who studied the factors related to knowledge sharing in groups:

  1. Size of the community
  2. Cost of sharing knowledge
  3. Clarity of the information shared
  4. Cultural norms of the recipients

While culture alone isn’t sufficient to overcome challenges related to group size, cost of sharing, and clarity, it’s still a necessary condition for success. Even with culture, not all outcomes of knowledge sharing and collaboration will be as high-minded and successful as the Invisible College, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. As with the average reduction in quality of content when publishing is free and easy, you take the good with the bad, and some outcomes will still be radically better than what’s come before.

Chapter 6: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

So what are the different forms that (group) sharing can take, and what kinds of value do they generate?

Shirky breaks sharing into four categories that lie along a spectrum:

  1. Personal: Uncoordinated individuals sharing simple content or ideas (e.g., lolcats)
  2. Communal: Sharing within a small group of collaborators aimed at a common goal (e.g., topically focused groups within
  3. Public: Groups sharing with an active desire to create a public resource for use by a broader collection of people (e.g., the Apache web server project)
  4. Civic: Groups collaborating in an effort to actively transform society (e.g., Pink Chaddi)

As we proceed along this spectrum (from public to civic), there is increasing value for non-participants. Additionally, there is need for progressively stronger interaction amongst the individuals in the group. At each step, there is a tension between maximizing individual freedom or maximizing social value. There’s no one solution to this tension; just “different optimizations that create different kinds of value.”

A natural question to ask at this point is what role governance plays in this world of social production. Successful governance requires defending against external threats to stability (which is generally easy to motivate), and more pernicious internal threats (e.g., arguments, inertia, distraction). He sees two possible outcomes:

  1. The Invisible University: Social production that generates public and civic value pursues this path (e.g., Ushahidi and Pink Chaddi). In this model, people have commitment to working outside existing market and managerial structures, they actively create opportunities for sharing, and they govern themselves using a balance of culture and a set of constraints on behavior.
  2. The Invisible High School: Efforts that produce personal and communal value can pursue a simpler approach without governance. This is the dominant (and stable) approach with most of the social sharing efforts at large today.

In a nutshell, then, cognitive surplus can yield different kinds of value, depending on the nature of the groups involved, their goals, and their degree of cohesion. It’s not all socially tranformative projects like Ushahidi, but neither is it just people uploading silly pictures of their cats. As with everything, there’s good, bad, and everything in between. Some of it may be seen as a waste of time and effort, but that’s part and parcel to giving everyone the freedom to create and share things with the world.

Chapter 7: Looking for the Mouse

We are all living through the disorientation that comes from including two billion participants in a media landscape previously operated by a small group of professionals. (p. 186)

Shirky is pretty clear about the uncertainty around where all of this is going. It remains to be seen what benefit will emerge from our ability to treat the world’s cognitive surplus as a shared and cumulative resource. We’ll probably get lots more lolcats, but how much public and civic good will come of it? As with the printing press, it will take a lot of time before the ramifications of all we’re doing and exploring will become clear (see The Information Age and the Printing Press – Looking backward to see ahead for a deeper analysis of this topic).

So what are the best ways for us to harness this cognitive surplus? If you want to create an awesome social product or service that taps into this potential, where do you start? Shirky doesn’t have a prescription, but presents a few principles on which people might base their efforts:

  1. In the beginning: Start small, focus on what’s going to make people engage, provide clear opportunity to do so, and use “social” as your default
  2. Growth: Shirky points out that social systems have two modes – dynamic and dead. With this in mind, it’s important to manage growth dynamics properly. Keep the bar to participation low, manage through the 100-user transition point, allow for varying levels of participation, and provide a supportive culture.
  3. Adapt to change: Learn from your users, don’t worry about defending against hard problems (just fail and learn), minimize governance until it’s needed, and try anything and everything.

Those deeply committed to old solutions cannot see how society would benefit [from a new approach]. (p. 210)

In his closing thoughts, Shirky looks at a few ways we might go about trying to integrate these new technologies and behaviors into our lives (i.e., to cope with the disruption that’s happening around us):

  1. As Much Chaos As We Can Stand: “Let any would-be revolutionary try anything they want with new technologies, without regard for existing cultural or social norms or potential damage to current social institutions.”
  2. Traditionalist Approval: Put the fate of new technologies in the hands of people responsible for the current way of doing things, and let them decide what’s right.
  3. Negotiated Transition: Let radicals propose new uses of technology, and then facilitate a discussion with the traditionalists to find an approach on which everyone can agree, where new and old can coexist peacefully.

During periods of technological stability, there is a strong bias in favor of existing systems, but this becomes a liability during revolution. For this reason, and because traditionalists would likely kill lots of positive innovation, Shirky discards the Traditionalist approval approach. Negotiated transition would be a different kind of disaster, because the radicals and traditionalists have systematic biases that cloud their vision, thus preventing them from ever agreeing.

Shirky votes that we go with As Much Chaos As We Can Stand. Because radicals have an inability to predict what will happen with what they create, and because “social diffusion” (i.e., the spread of ideas and tools) can act as a braking function, most of what the radicals try will fail, and only the good stuff will survive.


The world’s people, and the connections among us, provide the raw material for cognitive surplus. The technology will continue to improve, and the population will continue to grow, but change in the direction of more participation has already happened. What matters most now is our imaginations. The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous; what we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation, and sharing. (p. 212)

While some might call Shirky’s view overly optimistic, I tend to share his optimism. We live in exciting times, and the new technologies at our fingertips enable things previously unimaginable in human history. It won’t all be wine and roses — great technological disruptions always bring benefits both good and bad. Evil people will always find ways to use new technologies to exploit, subjugate and control others, trying to maintain their power in the world. Hopefully we can use those same technologies to stop them more effectively, while still allowing for innovation and exploration and all the positive societal good that can come from it.

We can’t predict where things are going, but we are all part of this new connected age, with this cognitive surplus at our fingertips. I hope we can follow Mr. Shirky’s advise and reward public creativity, participation and sharing for the benefit of all.

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