Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky, Allen Lane RRP£20, 256 pages
Clay Shirky is one of the most convincing of the new breed of internet evangelists. His first book, Here Comes Everybody, was an engagingly written, upbeat guide to how the internet is changing everything around us. In his new book, a kind of sequel, he argues that the growing time we’re spending online, together with our brand new communication tools, throws up the possibilities for expending our “cognitive surplus” in fruitful new ways.
This isn’t a new idea, but Shirky colours it with his characteristic clarity and his eye for a good story. We humans like to share, he says, and our new tools for social co-ordination enable us to do more of it. As we spend more free time actively typing stuff online rather than passively watching the television, we’re going to be able to behave in more publicly-minded, generous and collaborative ways. “The wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.”
Shirky starts with the example of www.icanhascheezburger.com, a popular website featuring funny pictures of cats (so-called “lolcats”). But he believes that the net is also going to be a boon for more serious-minded kinds of collaboration. He cites, for example, an online protest among teenage girls in South Korea against imports of American beef in the wake of mad cow disease. He name-checks useful sites like www.couchsurfing.com and www.pickuppal.com which match givers and takers and co-ordinate demand more efficiently than ever before.
Yet most of what goes on online, as Shirky admits mid-way through the book, has nothing to do with the “creativity and generosity” of his subtitle. Letting other people copy our music or telling friends about our favourite books is far from the pure altruism involved in something like giving blood. It’s much more about finding exactly what we want, and often for free.
Publishing, says Shirky, used to be something that we had to ask permission to do from publishers. But now that anybody can make anything public on the internet, the whole economics of the business is going to collapse. “Publishing had to be taken seriously when its cost and effort made people take it seriously ... An activity that once seemed inherently valuable turned out to be only accidentally valuable.”
He’s right that the economics of media businesses are radically changing, but his analysis of why that’s happening is thin. Too reliant on the internet and telephone networks, Shirky’s explanatory apparatus hops back and forth from Gutenberg’s printing press to the internet as if the 20th century never happened. What’s missing is any account of the growth of the mainstream media and its relationship to consumers.
All this matters, because what comes out the other end of this approach is a kind of junk economics. In a book about how we use our surplus time, Shirky shows little curiosity in how we want to spend it. And for a writer who tantalises the shrinking mainstream media with glimpses of its possible future, there isn’t a single example of something we might want to watch or read at any length.
We’re quite happy to snack on pictures of lolcats at work because it’s not really our free time, but most of us would prefer to go home to the fuller meal of a television series in the evening. We’ll often pay for the latter and give it our undivided attention – but no one is going to pay for pictures of lolcats, which is where media executives who listen to internet evangelists can come terribly unstuck. Whatever the boosters say, the audience still wants to sit back and be an audience, even if we now like to talk among ourselves at the same time. Anything else is nothing more than a cute and mildly diverting waste of our time.
James Harkin is the author of ‘Cyburbia’ (Little, Brown)