The Stack: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
By Clay Shirky
The Penguin Press, 242 pp, $25.95

Internet missionaries can be terribly annoying. Part of the reason—especially to the print dinosaurs among us—is that they're so correct. Broken old media businesses will change or die. Younger audiences will not just read or watch; they must tweet, blog, and update their status, preferably all at once. More broadly, digital networks are reshaping culture, economics, and politics. That's beyond debate. Like most zealots, however, the Web evangelists often seem self-righteous and oblivious to ambiguity. This trait threatens to limit their appeal even to the already converted.

In his first book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky explained how wikis and flash mobs altered social relations. His new work, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, extends the upbeat argument. By "cognitive surplus," Shirky means potential free time. Right now we're wasting gobs of it on embarrassingly bad television, he writes, and we could do an awful lot of good if we devoted even a few hours apiece to, say, online civic groups. Shirky takes as an example Grobanites for Charity, a far-flung bunch of young women that raises money to help humanity via a website named for their favorite shaggy-chic pop-opera star, Josh Groban. Even if you don't share the Grobanites' taste in music, it's a cool little story about the Internet at its best.

What distinguishes Cognitive Surplus from the recent wave of digital-cheerleading books is its ability to show how the medium is well-suited to serving social causes. Shirky, who teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, tells crisp, memorable parables. As with most parables, his are populated by two-dimensional characters meant to impart simple lessons. Shades of gray are largely absent. We meet plucky teenagers in South Korea who organize online to protest against American beef imports in the wake of mad cow disease. In Kenya a courageous political blogger starts a website that aggregates citizen reports of outbreaks of ethnic violence. Intrepid vacationers click on to find volunteer hosts, while matches carpoolers more efficiently than was possible by phone. The anecdotes lift the spirit, even for a reader who wouldn't dream of traveling across Europe based on digital reservations for crashing on the couches of complete strangers.

By the middle of this slim volume, however, one notices a certain sameness in the creativity and generosity Shirky heralds. Everyone online seems inoffensive and vaguely progressive. From this sampling, Shirky draws odd generalizations. "Because the social tools we now have can shape public speech and civic action," he writes, "people who design and use them have joined the experimental wing of political philosophy." When did carpooling, admirable as it may be, become a branch of political philosophy?

A lot of people who design and use newfangled social tools are pretty conventional in their thinking—and their opinions don't all point in one direction. Pro-gun, anti-gun. Pro-choice, anti-abortion. Balance the budget, stimulate the economy. They're all out there online, soliciting contributions, hyper-linking, selling ads, and arguing their briefs. It often seems more like a wearisome cognitive overload than an invigorating cognitive surplus.

The Internet, through its very nature, amplifies all ideas, good and bad. It's just as useful to al Qaeda and child-porn merchants as it is to healthy-beef activists. It's a mixed bag, not an unmitigated blessing. While the Web may empower people to do good in previously unimaginable ways, one can still appreciate new forms of networked munificence without turning digital communication into a religion.

Shirky acknowledges that a lot of people distract themselves with silly cat-photo sites— and the like—but he suggests misleadingly that that's as low as the online world goes. He also gives short shrift to the Internet as mundane convenience. For a lot of us, the ease of ordering books or Chinese food online plays just as large a role in the digital revolution as making charitable contributions by click rather than snail mail.

Shirky commits other distortions, too. Television, in his rendering, is all Gilligan's Island and The Partridge Family. Agreed: Most TV programs are a waste of time, and the world might be a better place if more people eschewed Jersey Shore for Grobanites for Charity. Still, some of us occasionally want to escape into a good story or spend time in the company of a diverting ensemble of neurotics. What's wrong with that? So far, the Internet doesn't generate much original entertainment of any heft—at least none that Shirky notes. He ought to check out The Daily Show, American Masters, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or 30 Rock. He might even benefit from a hearty laugh or two. Same story on public affairs: There is nothing online to rival 60 Minutes or many of the documentaries on HBO (TWX). In fact, we might be better off as a society if more people watched these programs.

Like many of the high-tech faithful, Shirky displays a casual disdain for print. Publishing, he notes, was once something only publishers could do. "Publishing had to be taken seriously when its cost and effort made people take it seriously," he writes. "An activity that once seemed inherently valuable turned out to be only accidentally valuable."

This short review isn't the place for a full-dress defense of newspapers, magazines, and books. Suffice it to say, there are still many millions of readers who derive value from those products, even if the profit-and-loss formulas are shifting. Shirky doesn't explain how the do-it-yourself chaos of the Internet will produce a melancholy Richard Ford novel or Michael Lewis' next dissection of American business—or, for that matter, Clay Shirky's next book-length sermon on the Internet.

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