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Cognitive Surplus – Where Do People Find the Time?

Clay ShirkyOK, I will admit it – I may have a slight man-crush on Clay Shirky. I quote him often, watch any video he’s in, and read everything he writes. The term “thought leader” is overused in our hyperactive blogosphere, but the term truly applies to Shirky. His first book, “Here Comes Everybody – The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” looked past the obvious points everyone else was making about social media and unveiled the long term effects it would have on organizations. Put another way, he was thought-leading.

His encore book is “Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” and it is vintage Shirky. Every page is dense with original ideas about how social media is going to affect society. The very title of the book suggests that there is a surplus of brain power up for grabs. But since cognitive capacity is a zero sum game, the surplus has to come from somewhere. This begs the question, “Where do people find the time?”

The Essence

Shirky tells a story about a conversation he had with a television producer who was trying to determine whether or not to have him on her show. He talked about the controversy of Pluto’s “delisting” as a planet and the sudden spike in activity on its Wikipedia page. Shirky waited for her to follow up with questions about the social implications of this phenomenon, but “Instead, she sighed and said, ‘Where do people find the time?” Hearing this, I snapped, and said, ‘No one who works in television gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from.'”

MaryAnn Gilligan and Ginger

The 1970’s television show “Gilligan’s Island” had many pondering the eternal question, “Ginger or Mary Ann?”

He estimates that there are roughly a trillion hours spent watching television worldwide each year. The advent of the industrial age and, with it, the 40 hours work week meant that the post World War II industrialized societies had an abundance of free time and television swooped in and soaked up most of it. We laughed at ourselves for spending so much time contemplating the such mysteries of the universe as, “Ginger or Mary Ann?“.

Social media represents competition for our free time. The big difference between it and television is that our every use of social media is, by definition, a creative act. Whether it’s uploading vacation photos to Flickr or sharing pearls of wisdom on Twitter, we have made something that didn’t previously exist. We can debate the value and merit of this content until the cows come home, but what is not debatable is that watching television creates nothing.

The question now becomes, what will come from the creative activities of “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” as he calls them?

Means, Motive and Opportunity

In three of the book’s chapters, presents the implications of the Cognitive Surplus in the framework of a legal argument; means, motive and opportunity. “The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes.” They payoff in the book comes from the motive and opportunity topics, where the rubber truly meets the road.

The Skinny

Why it rocks:

The book is fruitcake-dense with ideas, evidence, and challenges. It looks well beyond the horizon of such comparatively insignificant questions as “Google versus Facebook”, or “How much is a follower worth?” Cognitive Surplus is a book about how human beings will harness each others’ brains in order to work together at changing the world.

Why it doesn’t:

It’s not the easiest read in the world. Not because of his writing style, but simply because you spend so much time contemplating the implications of the machine gun pace of ideas he unleashes.

The Verdict

This is an important book. It may not necessarily be important to you, but the concepts are far reaching and somewhat mind boggling. If you’re wondering what role LOL Cats may play in the future of mankind, Shirky goes a long way toward putting all things social media into context.

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