Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”

A brilliant talk made by a brilliant man on the key changes coming in our society due to what he calls “cognitive surplus.” 

(Edit: this video used to be on, but that went away, so I’m replacing it with this similar video above.)

10 thoughts on “Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”

  1. I am still not convinced that his definition of “doing something significant’ (with significant being the operative word) with our cognitive surplus is valid. It may be, yet it may be as empty as watching Gilligan’s Island or listening to yet another Red’s game. I may still do it, but I’m not going to pretend that it’s a great, intellectually productive endeavor.

  2. You’re right, Pop. Some of the “significance” alluded to in these ideas could merely be hubris and otherwise-empty value judgments. It seems easy to presume that editing Wikipedia is more valuable or significant than watching TV, but that depends on a lot of particular things being true for that assumption to be provable.

    I think the bigger stretch is the belief / hope that people, as they crave interaction, will gravitate towards interacting in edifying ways. I’ve already written about the way in which some folks online seem to do the opposite, needlessly insulting and tearing down each other.

    In the end, what Mr. Shirky is suggesting would require not just a shift towards interactive content, but a shift in cultural values away from many things we currently treasure.

  3. What surprised me most when I first watched this video was how little he said. Is this what passes for insight?

    I’m in agreement that there is something to be said for interactive has significant advantages over passive forms of entertainment. (From David Mamet’s _State & Main_: “Everyone makes their own fun. If someone else makes it, it’s entertainment.”)

    But what does he say beyond this in his fifteen minutes? Some unconvincing pop-history? Funny anecdotes about how not with-it TV journalists are? (If someone didn’t already believe that, I doubt they would be watching this clip to begin with.)

    And I think his comments about TV really miss what is exciting about television today. His example of television is Gilligan’s Island. So he is picking out the worst of television to compare to the best (and occasionally middling-worst) in interactive technology. But good television requires a great deal of work on behalf of the viewer. _Everything Bad Is Good For You_ does an okay job of suggesting that shows like Lost and Survivor make great demands on the viewer. We could add The Daily Show, 30 Rock, Bleak House, and many others that require a great deal of attention and work to really enjoy.

    Now, he and I are in agreement that it is better to engage in activities when greater demands are placed on the recipient to appreciate it. But his notion that this is something new that wasn’t happening 50 years ago because we were so tired from the work week is just baseless historical speculation, and that television is stuck in that old way and therefore won’t survive the nascient cultural shift, is overreaching at best and pure guesswork at worst.

  4. Ok, I agree that Clay Shirky is correct in his assessment of TV sapping Cognitive Surplus for years/decades. However, I strongly disagree that the current use of the internet as “interaction” is a WONDERFUL replacement of that placebo. (I realize he did not use the term WONDERFUL.)

    Frankly, most of the people I see using the internet during their spare time are using it for personal reasons (i.e. unfortunately, mostly naval gazing) like shopping, blogging, porn, gossip etc instead of education, philanthropic endeavors or connecting with people they know (in the direct physical eye to eye sense). I don’t see how this can have a positive net outcome and I speak from personal direct experience and internet use.

    I agree that SOME of that time will be used in idea sharing, society advancing ways, but I don’t think that the overall result will be an overwhelming wave of new ideas and socially productive individuals. I think it will result in an ever increasing supply of people who think that I should care what they ate for breakfast that morning and how their stomach reacted to said breakfast. Or are offended that I don’t care to share the same details of my life with them, much less pictures of my daughters for anyone to see. I don’t see these people as socially well-adjusted nor productive (as far as this area of their lives is concerned).

    Keep in mind, I am not arguing that TV is better than internet. I simply don’t have the high expectations that Mr. Shirky does concerning future products birthed by the internet.

    From a purely observational standpoint I think he is correct that we are headed in this direction and media/retail/philantrophic organizations/churches/schools etc would be wise to note this trend and work with it somehow. I only disagree that this will automatically result in a better or more advanced society than we have yet experienced.

  5. Give it up, Josh. You just like him because if you strap a soul patch on him he could be your doppelgänger.

  6. I admit, I am now deeply regretting ever calling this talk “brilliant.” Oh well. Live and learn. Hopefully Clay supports his ideas more thoroughly in his book and elsewhere, but I’m not familiar enough with his work to say whether or not that’s the case.

  7. You shouldn’t ‘deeply regret’ it. It was a very interesting piece, and got me thinking about some great issues. (My “Is this what passes for insight?” was much too sharp.) I think he gave a very interesting, provocative, entertaining, stimulating talk.

    I just don’t think the content was well-enough developed. Obviously, that’s a rather big flaw, but it doesn’t mean he was wrong, just that he didn’t do enough work to show he was right. And we don’t want to wait around being absolutely sure that everything we say is definitely right before we speak. That would be awful.

    Rather, I’m doing what he thinks I should be doing – interacting, using this (in many ways) unprecedented medium. I just want to go beyond mere interaction-as-editing-Wikipedia and actually engage with his ideas – a high form of praise, I think.

  8. @tpy Excellent points, sir! As usual. I’m sure he would not regret this discussion, even though it occasionally criticizes his speech. As you said, this kind of thing is a big part of the big idea.

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