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Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky

(Penguin Press; US: Jun 2010)

Coinciding with the rise of the Internet as a fact of everyday life there is a certain sub-genre of current affairs writing that has become popular over the past decade. Books like The Tipping Point, Freakanomics, The Long Tail, and Here Comes Everybody are examples of pop-academia. In other words, laymen interpreting complex subjects that typically take years of study to comprehend.


Besides cute attempts at coining catch phrases, these books suffer from a common malady: massive errors in logic and basic research which result in sweeping generalizations that sound great when you’re being interviewed on The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher, but don’t stand up when scrutinized. Their appeal comes from brash positivity – the arguments brought forth seem to imply a hidden world of technological bliss that the authors can see but we can’t. It’s as if they’re living in a Utopia of perception which gives them the convenient ability to dismiss any argument against their premises as “negativity”.


Clay Shirky is one of those authors, becoming a part of the crowd in 2008 with his book, Here Comes Everybody. You could call him a techno-idealist. Despite trying to sound even-handed the downside never seems to make its presence felt. We get the feeling that he really, really, likes the Internet. Yet, underneath the writing the desperate need to come up with a “Big Idea” is ever-present. Despite what can only be assumed are his best efforts, the idea never materializes.


With his attempt at a turn of phrase, Shirky calls “cognitive surplus” a new phenomenon because of the decade long explosion of a new way to use our collective free time – the Internet. Instead of the usual time-waster Television, he argues that we are now being productive because we’re able to “create and share” (like a kindergarten teacher the book sickeningly uses that phrase ad nauseam) with one another via blogs and websites like YouTube. Shirky also points out that because of the Internet’s inherent mass-organizing ability, by using it we are able to contribute to society. He gives several examples of websites that have helped organize everything from rideshare programs to women’s rights in India.


Shirky writes as if he just discovered the Internet. He’s like the nouveau hipster who dresses out of the Urban Outfitters catalog and shows up at the party wearing last year’s tight neon pants. Sorry man, the novelty’s over with. He states sweeping generalizations as if they were fact, “When the general public began using digital networks, the idea that everyone would contribute something to the public sphere was assumed to be contradictory to nature.” That sentence reveals more about Clay Shirky than it does about people in general. First, who did all this assuming? He never tells us. Second, has he never heard of church organizations, non-profits, volunteer groups, the Boy and Girl Scouts, neighborhood watch programs, rideshare programs, Little League, food banks, the Lions Club…? The list is virtually endless. Shirky doesn’t contribute things to the public sphere, that doesn’t mean that most people don’t.


Countless times in the book Shirky strikes a note of revolution, as if anything has changed significantly because of the once-fabled Internet. The last time I checked we still have to go to work every day and despite some momentary upheavals, the Internet has become one more way for savvy large corporations (and many parasitic start-ups) to make money. At one point he writes, “We are all living through the disorientation that comes from including two billion new participants in a media landscape previously operated by a small group of professionals.” This repeated statement by Shirky, that because you can upload and watch videos on YouTube (or if you’re cool, Vimeo), or write a review on Amazon.com, or organize your BFF’s birthday party via Facebook means that a societal revolution has occurred is a profound error at the core of Cognitive Surplus’s logic. The Internet is a small step forward for humanity, but it’s a giant step forward for business.


Now that the novelty has worn off, it’s plain that the Internet is nothing new for people – that’s why it has fit so seamlessly into our daily lives and will continue to do so as the smartphone industry expands. The Internet is like the classified ads on steroids, it’s like’s the late edition of the newspaper but updated every second, it’s the Yellow Pages but with reviews, but Shirky writes as if this is a technological Valhalla. He misses that most signs are pointing to a coming consolidation of Internet information and Television entertainment into a single entity (Shirky even inadvertently points this out in an anecdote at the end of the book about a friend’s young daughter asking for “the mouse” while watching TV).


This coming single entity, cable Television and the Internet combined, will be powered by international media conglomerates and companies like Google that trade at $500.00 a share. The Internet is a battlefield, not an altruistic orgy of “creating and sharing”, as Shirky puts it. The war is over eyeballs and eventually wallets.


From Malcolm Gladwell to Clay Shirky there is currently an odd streak in technology related cultural writing that proclaims the revolutionary aspect of access to information while not actually bothering to learn from any of the information while writing their books. Shirky has a habit of describing everything from Vladimir Lenin to the Protestant Reformation in the language of intellectual laziness. In describing social vs. individual values he writes, “Neither perfect individual freedom nor perfect social control is optimal. Ayn Rand and Vladimir Lenin both overshot the mark.” As if to say that Lenin’s problem was simply too much enthusiasm for his task of enabling the death of five million of his own countrymen and destroying an entire population’s ability to feed itself after the Russian Revolution.


Shirky’s logic is agonizingly error ridden at so many points that you begin to wonder if this is some sort of Comcast funded plot to erode faith in the written word. How is the reader supposed to take anything else Shirky says seriously when in reference to the invention of the printing press he produces a sentence like, “When a scholar could read both Aristotle and Galen side by side and see that the two sources clashed, it corroded reflexive faith in the ancients. If you couldn’t trust Aristotle, who could you trust?” Were our 15th century counterparts that easily confused? The real question is: why didn’t someone make a t-shirt with “If you can’t trust Aristotle who can you trust?” on it and make a few bucks?


There is actually something worthwhile in Cognitive Surplus. Arriving at the middle section of the book, the two chapters called “Opportunity” and “Culture” are like hitting an oasis in an unforgiving wasteland. Taken together, they provide interesting and useful information, serving to function as a directory of lesser-known websites that can truly be called a step forward (though hardly revolutionary) in human society. What changed from the rest of the book is that Shirky toned his rhetoric down and started talking about something he knows intimately – exceptional web design and its provable effects.


These two chapters, had they been expanded to form the basis of the book, could easily have become a much needed compendium of positive, grass-roots aspects of the Internet. Then the book would contain mostly first-person accounts, real-world scenarios, provable effects; the stuff of good non-fiction. Unfortunately, they are sandwiched between 100 pages of conjecture laden pop-academia.


Don’t worry about Shirky. He’ll get the result that this book was intended for (as of this writing the book was #1 in three different categories on Amazon.com). The big secret of Pop-Academia, or Pop-Economics, or Pop-Whatever writing is that the writing is less about the subject and more about the author. The books in this new genre are intended as marketing tools for the authors themselves, while masquerading as serious thought.


The authors get to appear on talk shows, have their books quoted and reviewed in newspapers and magazines (the irony is that non-Internet sources are still the legitimizers) and as a result they will get to take another step forward in their careers, be it at NYU or The New Yorker. Sadly, in a world that seems to be moving faster than most people have the cognitive framework to comprehend, readers will continue to consume these types of intellectual bags of Hot Cheetos because they don’t know any better.

Rating:

George Russell is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. His PopMatters essays have appeared in an anthology published by W.W. Norton. He can be reached at russell@popmatters.com.


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