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


  1. I see the link on Amazon, but is there an outfit in New Zealand that sells it? Shipping here is murder…

  2. Hey, maybe early purchasers could transcribe a paragraph or two, and together create a pirated version.

    1. @mwiik

      You’d pirate from Shirky because of Amazon’s shipping?

      Scratch that… you’d ask non-pirates to pirate on your behalf, because of someone else’s complaint about Amazon’s shipping. All because you’re lazy and/or (vicariously) cheap?

      You kinda suck.

      1. Hmm? A paragraph at a time? I really don’t think that mwiik was being serious, y’know?

  3. is there anything that has the ebook Cognitive Surplus? so I can download to your computer, ordered the book on amazon too risky for me who reside in Asia

  4. There is a broader trend behind the Cognitive Surplus, which is Leisure Surplus. As capital was accumulated in the economy, investments raised productivity and people could afford more leisure.

    People can now spend more time on hobbies, and the internet allows them to get together more efficiently. The net is only half of the equation, arguably the lesser one.

    When it comes to the futility or productivity of activities on the web, all activities are productive as far as the people involved. Other people can frown on any hobbies, whether on the internet or off, and always have, but that is not any objective measure.

  5. Not that BB has an equal-time policy, but for a semi-opposing viewpoint how ’bout reviewing The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr?

  6. GA!! Another Clay Shirky book and I haven’t even finished “Here Comes Everybody” yet.

    Would that be a cellulosic surplus?

    (sounds dirty)


  7. Alvin Toffler predicted the rise of what he termed the `prosumer’ (producer-consumer) in his 1984 book `The Third Wave’ (available at better garage sales everywhere). Prosumers are people who buy mass produced products to manufacture their own products to share with others. I don’t recall if he predicted the collaborative aspect but he seems to have been ahead of the curve on this.

  8. Even if you don’t actively collaborate or share information, just seeing what is possible – what others have done – can inspire you to become better in that area. I see that a lot in art.

  9. Hey, Cory, did you see you got a little mention in this week’s New Yawker magazine? The article is about novels for young readers, and they mention Little Brother.

  10. We have for a century had excellent mechanisms for channeling the self-interested part of human nature. Now mechanisms are emerging for efficiently fueling our solidarity, generosity and altruism. The 21st century is the century of socialism.

    1. Anon #16
      Do not confuse solidarity, generosity and altruism with socialism.

      The former involve individuals choosing to use their property to help others.
      The latter is saying that individuals don’t control their property, but rather that they are owned by the state.

      1. @Julien #18 I think you’re using the Fox-TV/Glenn Beck definition of socialism. Its often called social-democracy on my side of the pond and is very different from totalitarian Stalinism that you seem to refer to.

        Social democracy is about the citizens electing for income redistribution in their society for moral (feel the ‘right’ thing to do) and practical (don’t like beggars on my doorstep) reasons.

        In such societies people still own their property and a large chunk of the government’s budget is allocated to providing a safety-net and things like universal healthcare and free education for it’s citizens.

        Post-scarcity technologies such as e-books and 3D-printing will make all of this easier.

  11. I just got it in the UK via iBooks, but my iTunes store account has a USA address.

    Hmm… Wonder if a person could fake that out on a new registration?

  12. Here Comes Everybody wasn’t Clay Shirky’s first book! He wrote several before it; Voices from the Net is definitely worth reading, especially for people like me who are too young to have been part of any of the first several waves of online communities before the web was mainstream.

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