Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

by Clay Shirky  


Clay Shirky sets out a startling statistic in this book. That the connected population of the world watches over a trillion hours of television a year and that only 1% of that time is the amount of attention that could be spent creating one hundred projects each equivalent to the size of Wikipedia. A lot of the rest of the book is essentially a framework for looking at what could be done with that 1% and why people are willing to contribute into joint projects. One thing that Clay Shirky is very good at is creating thinking frameworks for looking at issues. In this case he uses the framework of a crime scene where the police will look at motive, means and opportunity. He uses this framework to look at how people do and might act. Some key points that came out of this section for me were:

  • That we were taught to regard to amateur hobbyist as something faintly ridiculous if not actually suspect, while watching hundreds of hours of television in a passive state was perfectly acceptable. Until seeing it framed in this way I never really thought of the two activities in that way. The amateur hobbyist and his/her attitudes form a large part of collaborative action on the internet.
  • That one useful way of assessing people’s behaviour in contributing to joint projects is by asking the question of are they getting rewarded by a feeling of competence, a feeling of autonomy, a desire for feeling connected, or a desire to be generous?
    That people mostly have a good sense of fair play and will punish those who do not play fair, even if it is to their own detriment (see the description of the ultimatum game on p105 and onwards).
  • Theories of generational difference, while providing easy categorisations and sound bites are really an expression of human wants and desires to the opportunities that present themselves. So generation Y acts in a certain way because of the motive, means and opportunity they are provided for in the environment they live in and all generations would respond in the same way if given the same environment. This makes complete sense but does not mean that we should treat a 70 year old the same way as a 20 yr old – because they have different experiences and are at a different stage of life. What it does mean is that given the right pathway the 70 yr old may well respond in the same way.

The author then goes on to discuss culture and initially uses the example of a set of day care centres where fines for parents picking up their children late were imposed and created the opposite effect to the intended one. Parents actually came later to pick up their kids. The explanation is that the parents had gone from a shared understanding of the required behaviour and moved to one where a price (in the form of a fine) created a transactional relationship instead. Therefore parents weighed up the cost of the transaction versus the value of the time they could gain from being late and made a decision to pay the price. Even when the fines were removed the changed behaviour was maintained because the concept of the nature of the relationship had been fundamentally altered. This is a really important point because we must be really careful in collaborative projects using our cognitive surplus not too damage relationships and behaviours that may never be restored.

In the last section of the book, titled “looking for the mouse” Shirky goes on to discuss how to look at making a group work in a collaborative way and has a number of useful tips on behaviour. In the end though he makes the point that we are in novel territory and that we have to feel our way towards success. Just as we have been surprised by the success of Wikipedia, there will be many other surprises along the way. In fact earlier in the book he describes a situation where he made a completely wrong call because of his lack of understanding of some of the issues he describes in the book.

Some people may be disappointed in the book in that it does not come to definite conclusions in a number of areas but that is the point. The book is intended as an exploration of the issues with some ideas about frameworks we can use, and nothing more than that. To that end Clay Shirky stays true to his principles and his purpose.

I would recommend that anyone who is involved in thinking about how the internet might evolve, or is involved or thinking of being involved in collaborative projects and groups should read the book. I would go even further than that. I think that these sorts of arrangements will become critical to most of us and we should all be thinking about them, and Clay Shirky provides one very good way of doing that.