Sunday, November 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Clay Shirky "Cognitive Surplus -- creativity and generosity in a connected age"

Clay Shirky's latest book "Cognitive Surplus--creativity and generosity in a connected age" takes on the same topic as his previous books, namely how new technology changes our society when it comes to who has the power to be an information consumer versus a producer. The main claim in the book is that we (the people) have an enormous amount of "cognitive surplus", that is, time that we at the moment are not necessarily using for anything important, so there is a surplus of cognitive "power" that can be harvested. Shirky's prime example of the surplus is the amount of time people spend watching TV. This time is, according to the author, time that could be used for other purposes. The book is mainly a long parade of examples of people who has managed to use the new social technology to do things that only a few decades ago would have been impossible, or only possible for those with power or money. The examples are all exciting even though they are in several cases quite well known.

The book is very easy to read. Straightforward with clear examples and easy to follow reasoning. At the same time, after a while I got a bit bored. The examples became quite similar and they function mostly as confirmations of the overall argument the author is making. Taken together, the examples make a strong case and they are convincing. But, there are some things I would have liked to see more of. For instance, it would have been interesting with some more detailed examples and analysis of failed attempts to use the new technology. It might be difficult to find those examples, but at the same time they could provide us with some other insights. I suspect that most attempts to use the internet in the way described in the book do lead to failures, that is, not to any substantial self-organization or growth in participation or impact.

In relation to that it might be interesting with a historic perspective (since the author contrasts today with before internet). Even during times without the new technology, people were able to organize and influence society, for instance, through community involvements leading to labor unions, religious congregations, ideological parties, etc. So, without technology how was that possible, how could they organize, did they have even more "cognitive surplus" in those days since these attempts probably took much more time and energy than they would today (at least according to the author). I am not sure how well such a historic comparison would work out, but since the author only focuses on successful examples, it might be interesting to see how they are  similar or not to historical successful examples.

Another aspect of the phenomenon that I miss in the book is the dark or evil side of the same "revolution". Even though the author touches on that here and there, I was waiting for a more in depth description of some examples. This is not a "tool" that only can be used for good. It can, and has, been used for anti-societal purposes. At least some chapter about that would have been interesting.

Anyhow, overall the book is valuable, especially to those who has not payed that much attention to how internet is changing things but is realizing that something is going on. To those who is more aware of the field and is engaged in the discourse, the book do not really offer that much when it comes to new insights.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Again, although an earlier post... I appreciate your concerns about evilness. Very important and indeed hard to embrace. Yet, in certain situations and context so revealing of the challenges facing contemporary societies.


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