Key Insights from Clay Shirky’s Book, “Cognitive Surplus”

Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of cognitive surplus…One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.

…young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption.

The social uses of our new media tools have been a big surprise, in part because the possibility of these uses wasn’t implicit in the tools themselves…the use of social technology is much less determined by the tool itself; when we use a network, the most important asset we get is access to one another.  We want to be connected to one another, a desire that the social surrogate of television deflects, but one that our use of social media actually engages.

Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things.  You don’t need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones are enough.

On participatory culture…

The atomization of social life in the twentieth century left us so far removed from participatory culture that when it can back, we needed the phrase “participatory culture” to describe it…Once you accept the idea that we actually like making and sharing things, however dopey in content or poor in execution, and that making one another laugh is a different kind of activity from being made to laugh by people paid to make us laugh, then in some ways the Cartoon Network is a low-grade substitute for lolcats.

To participate is to act as if your presence matters, as if, when you see something or hear something, your response is part of the event.

When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it.

In 2010 the global internet-connected population will cross two billion people, and mobile phone accounts already number of three billion.  Since there are something like 4.5 billion adults worldwide (roughly 30 percent of the global population is under fifteen), we live, for the first time in history, in a world where being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.

On means…

The People Formerly Known as the Audience

Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.

In comparison with a previous age’s scarcity, 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.

Media is the connective tissue of society.

…when someone buys a computer or a mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increases by one.  Talent remains unequally distributed, but the raw ability to make and to share is now widely distributed and getting wider everyday.

The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to the old status as consumers and couch potatoes.

On motive…

Clarity of design is obviously good, but other qualities, like the satisfaction of making something on your own or learning while doing, can trump it.

…social motivations reinforce the personal ones; our new communications networks encourage membership and sharing, both of which are good in and of themselves, and they also provide support for autonomy and competence.

Geography still matters, but it is no longer the main determinant of participation.

On opportunity…

Human character is the essential component of our sociable and generous behaviors, even when coordinated with high-tech tools.  Interpretations of those behaviors that focus on the technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them.

Given the right opportunities, humans will start behaving in new ways.

Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.

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