Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus

POSTED IN future web, good practice, social media | TAGS : , , , , 7 July 2010

George Orwell said, in an essay of fulsome praise of the man and his work, that Charles Dickens “was not a revolutionary writer”. He didn’t mean that Dickens wasn’t capable of or responsible for revolutions in prose, but that despite the image as a champion of the downtrodden he didn’t wish for systemic revolution — everything would be better, Dickens thought, if people were nicer.

That almost sums up what I think of the work of Clay Shirky, in his first book Here Comes Everybody and now in the new Cognitive Surplus he gives example after example of positive ways that the social web has altered the way people behave and organise, but while talking about revolution he is offering not too much more than the idea that the rules can be as simple as “be nice”. Like the first book it’s a great read, it’s enthusing and Shirky explains the ‘why’ better than almost anyone else — he even, surprisingly to me as it’s the first time I’ve read or heard him touch upon it,  has a belated go at the ‘how’.

The cognitive surplus of the title is the comeback to the question “how do people find the time?” often asked about people who are active on the social web — Shirky’s (rather glib, he admits himself) answer is “they stopped watching television”.  You can get the gist of this from some of his recent talks like this one in Bristol (thanks Pete), but to sum up and very much paraphrase: ‘economic circumstances since the 1940s have given people more free time and they now have tools to use that time on a wider collaborative scale’.

Where I was uncomfortable with Here Come Everybody where the examples where it seemed as if an educated, connected, class could use these tools to produce pressure even if that was exerted on a lower class. I’m unsure as to whether Shirky doesn’t see these issues, doesn’t see them as a problem, or, is merely pointing out facts without editorialising. It may be due to my own thoughts around class and digital inclusion, or it may be due to the American perspective on class issues being different. Where Cognitive Surplus falls down for me is not just this, although problems do seem to be on the radar,  but the way civic actions formed from this surplus are strictly divided from the merely communal.

I talk a lot about how the trivial sharing online forms a social glue that facilitates more civic action — how trust is built up from play or simply ambient sharing and that forms a base for constructive activism. I often use lolcats as an example of the play as they’re so widely understood. Clay Shirky however sees the play sharing as something entirely separate from the activism — it’s both something he says in his introductory chapter and then returns to as part of the conclusion as a worry. We’re never going to run out of lolcats he says, but there is a danger that we might run out of people willing to act civicly — quoting Gary Kamia who says “you can always get what you want, but you can’t always get what you need”.

For me the artificial separation of different types of sharing and communication makes the book a little light — there are plenty of examples in the book where just such a thing happens: the formation of a charity from fans of a mainstream (p-)opera star in the US, or protests in Korea in-part fuelled by communications on fan websites for a boy band, but the idea that communities can operate at different levels of sharing and organisation, or move from one to another, doesn’t seem to be addressed. The trivial communication is seen as a danger to the civic. There’s no room in the book for the power of satire, for example, which can be both trivial and civic concurrently.

It’s perhaps a function of writing a book that the examples used are all closed off, a community is formed from an interest group (in almost all examples) which then is motivated to action — little time is given to the way that communities co-exist and overlap on the social web (in the manner of what I’ve called bounded groups) and that service users (despite having no formal direct connections) are loosely linked and can act together if the circumstances are right. Witness how interconnected but mostly separate communities on Twitter are quickly (almost too quickly some would say) motivated to campaign collectively.

There is also again the implication that this sort of collective activity did not happen at all before the advent of the social web — that it was simply too difficult. I’d suggest that there are parallels, there are amateur organisations that acted more than locally and affected big change. The labour movement of the early 20th Century, or the way that the Football Association was formed — all from unpaid (strictly defined amateurs in the case of the FA or the cricket fraternity also) volunteers using existing networks organising together from scratch over a wide geographical area. They did indeed affect social change — and in the case of sport from supposedly trivial starting points.

The reasons for not covering this historical amateur organising is odd as it does support the cognitive surplus argument. The founders of the Football Association had spare time — as they were of a upper class — and money gave them the communication opportunities (though slower and different of course) that has now become wider due to social change and the social web. The ‘marginal cost’ of the formation of the Football Association was low to the original members, just as the formation of a Facebook group is now to the digitally engaged.

In what almost is a postscript, Shirky for the first time I have encountered talks about how one might start a work of social web civic activism — in a very useful and well thought out list of ‘things to think about’. These are great thoughts that anyone thinking about attempting any form of online organisation would do well to read. And he’s honest in saying that you can’t guarantee success, but you can design for defaults and anticipate the need to develop around problems.

It’s great to read Clay Shirky — who is rightly considered one of the big thinkers on the social web — talk about the problems that can be encountered when organisations expect one thing to happen but forget that people don’t always act with the rationality you expect. (A couple of the examples are part of his ‘Rethinking Representation’ talk a this year’s Personal Democracy Forum (archived video/tweets), I was there and it’s very much worth the twenty minutes of your time.) The book is also a fine list of fascinating resources that I may well go on to read further — particularly some of the group sociology research.

What disappoints is that lack of discussion solutions to those problems, it might be that there aren’t any obvious ones but I’d love to see what Clay has to say on the matter — he says how early in his web career he made a mistake in assuming something about people’s behaviour (he didn’t see how people would want poor self-made Geocitites sites after seeing professionally designed sites), perhaps it’s a decision never to predict again.

There is talk of the problem of the introduction of new technology and how it alters the status-quo, Shirky defines three approaches to “manage a revolution”: “as much chaos as we can stand” (just let new tech go), “negotiated transition” (balance between the advocates or change or no change)  or “traditional approval” (eg giving the Post Office the decision about how email could have been used). It’s not with relish that the chaos option — the revolution — is concluded to the be the only one.

Shirky is not a revolutionary writer, but he is one of the best at covering them.

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  • Simon Whitehouse

    You won’t be surprised that I agree with lots of what you say here. I think that often the social web can display the disparities of power and influence that exist in developed societies and can act to amplify them as well. I don’t recall a lot of comment on this by Shirky and, as you point out, in Here Comes Everybody he used that rather worrying example. He also focuses on the fact that roughly half the world’s population are now online, and proceeds to largely ignore the 50% who aren’t.
    Those 50% who aren’t connected include the people mining the coltan that is required for most of the equipment we use to connect to the web, or those working in factories in the developing world to provide us with consumer goods. Most of us online neither have connections to them or to other people in their countries who are online. I would have liked to have seen some exploration of the consequences of this.
    But then, maybe I am just imagining another book.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

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