Clay Shirky's COGNITIVE SURPLUS: how the net lets us share and do more than ever

Clay Shirky's second book, The Cognitive Surplus, picks up where his stellar debut, Here Comes Everybody left off: explaining how the net's lowered costs for group activity allow us to be creative and even generous in ways that we never anticipated and haven't yet fully taken account of.

Shirky's hypothesis is that a lot of the 20th century stuff we used to take for granted -- most people didn't want to create media, people didn't value homemade and amateur productions, no one would pitch in to create something for others to enjoy unless they were being paid -- weren't immutable laws of nature, but accidents of history. The Internet has undone those accidents, by making it possible for more people to make and do cool stuff, especially together.

Cognitive Surplus fizzes with great insights about how people use networks and interact with each other. For example, Shirky dismisses generational explanations for technology use and misuse. He rejects the idea that kids today value their privacy less than their forebears because they put all their personal info on Facebook, proffering this explanation instead: the older generation kept its info off of Facebook in the 1980s because Facebook didn't exist then, not because they possessed the wisdom to abstain from oversharing. Likewise, there's nothing inherent about being a senior citizen that makes it implausible that you'll use email -- which is why there are so many elderly emailers today.

But the meat of the argument is about how the best explanation for many of the group phenomena we see online, from ICanHazCheezburger to Wikipedia, is that people like sharing with each other and collaborating. Not always, of course. But there are architectures of participation that encourage the kind of sharing and generosity that enriches us all, and by experimenting with them, we can create media and social change that harnesses millions of people to help and amuse each other.

Shirky is very good on the connection between trivial entertainments and serious business, from writing web-servers to changing government. Lolcats aren't particularly virtuous examples of generosity and sharing, but they are a kind of gateway drug between zero participation and some participation. The difference between "zero" and "some" being the greatest one there is, it is possible and even likely that lolcatters will go on, some day, to do something of more note together. These sections are a warm and compelling rebuttal to people who argue that the net is a fad or a toxic waste heap, and his systematic argument is so well-reasoned that it might as well be a road-map for winning frustrating arguments about the net.

The last chapter of the book is a kind of roadmap for building your own structures for enabling participation, drawn from Clay's long history of teaching and consulting, and it's as practical as the rest is theoretical.

Cognitive Surplus continues to prove that Clay Shirky is one of the best thinkers and advocates the net has. It's a delight to read and will change how you think about the future.

The Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age