Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
In this presentation, Clay Shirky forecasts the thrilling changes we will all enjoy as new digital technology puts our untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last.
Since Americans were suburbanized and educated by the postwar boom, we’ve had a surfeit of intellect, energy, and time—what Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus.” But this abundance had little impact on the common good because television consumed the lion’s share of it. Now, for the first time, people are embracing new media that allows us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind expanding—reference tools like Wikipedia—to lifesaving—like Ushahidi.com, which has allowed Kenyans to report on acts of violence in real time.
Shirky charts the vast effects that our cognitive surplus—aided by new technologies—will have on twenty-first-century society and how we can best exploit those effects. For instance, he acknowledges that new tech brings greater freedom to publish and hence lower quality on average. But it also allows for the sort of experimentation that produces our greatest innovations. Shirky also assesses the transformative impact of online culture, which is by definition more transparent than traditional management structures.
Here Comes Everybody
Ten years ago, the big realization was a perceptual migration from atoms to bits, from the world of the physical to the world of information. This idea, best expounded by Nicholas Negroponte in “Being Digital,” alerted the world to the shift to the information economy. Now, another kind of digital revolution is taking hold. Networked tools are allowing groups to form and collaborate without any of the traditional friction that comes from managing the efforts of multitudes. The source of this revolution is not the computer but the connections between them, as our social networks fuse with our technological ones. Compared to the shift to digital information, this change is more painful for some people to embrace, even to contemplate, because it challenges deeply held assumptions about how society does or should work. We’re witnessing nothing less than the migration from an information economy based on the work of the individual mind to new forms of collective intelligence and collective effort, and it represents, for good or for bad, a fundamental change in the way our society—all modern societies, in fact—is structured. Clay Shirky illustrates these fundamental forces at work, and how they will change the world’s organizations and, ultimately, ourselves.
Failure for (Near) Free
In the emerging world of web-based collaboration and experimentation, organizations are learning that loosely coordinated groups may be the best way to work on large, complicated undertakings. The open source software industry is the most visible demonstration of this phenomenon, but collaborative networks are changing the face of the media and entertainment, outsourcing, and all technology-based industries. Clay Shirky, a pioneering researcher on collaborative tools, shows how these networks have significant and irreversible advantages over traditional business organizations, and what companies can do to capitalize on them—e.g. by lowering to (near) zero the cost of project failure.
Digital Might vs Digital Rights
A harbinger of how the media world is contending with the power of digital manipulation and collaboration may well be seen in the esoteric world of anime, the Japanese animated movies with hardcore fans in the US and Europe. Viewers now translate, sub-title and annotate these films for Western audiences, and curiously: the writers aren’t paid, no one asked them to do it, and they don’t belong to any organization. Clay Shirky paints a picture of a future disintermediated media business, where people provision, adapt and reuse the product for themselves. These dislocations will reverberate and reshape the business for many years to come, he contends, with one certainty: the efforts of the entertainment industry to make it harder to find and use its products perversely motivate the digital denizens to upturn these barriers and create out-of-system alternatives.