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

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

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.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age