Questioning Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

by Jason Falls |

The main gist of Clay Shirky‘s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, is that amazing things are now possible since society is waking up from its television-induced stupor of the last 60 years. The industrial age and media shift of the 1950s gave us skads of free time — a cognitive surplus — but we weren’t ready and didn’t have the mechanisms, in general, to do anything good with it. So we became couch potatoes. Now, with the emergence of a social web, collaboration and connection as possibilities, the world awaits our good deeds.

Shirky doesn’t so much predict we’re all now going to help the poor and drive revolutions in government and technology because we’ll be challenged by intellectually stimulating free time rather than the sense-numbing kind. But he makes an academic argument that the opportunity is there for the taking.

He writes:

“Creating real public or civic value, though, requires more than posting funny pictures. Public and civic value require commitment and hard work among the core group of participants. It also requires that these groups be self-governing and submit to constraints that help them ignore distracting and entertaining material and stay focused instead on some sophisticated task. … This work is not easy and it never goes smoothly.”

Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus is a fascinating look at the reasons behind the emergence of social change agents brought about by new technologies and opportunities created through collaborative mechanisms like social media. It points to historical references of parallel incidents of cognitive surplus and explains how those societies used them. If you want to understand societal shifts and how today’s population is changing both with and because of it’s use of available technologies, this book delivers.

But the two biggest notions I came away thinking about the world through Shirky’s eyes were these:

  • As many people who will use their cognitive surplus for noble causes will use it for less so (like Farmville).
  • True socially-infused movements cannot be forced.

Provided Shirky’s portrayal of the state of our society is right, and I believe it to be, these ideas are both good and bad news for marketers. First of all, people will continue to want junk. And who better to produce it that marketers? For every person who gravitates toward a Grobanites for Charity effort that emerges to raise money for a good cause, there will be 100 who want to be mesmerized by some silly online game or entertained by puking college students on YouTube.

I would propose that all those good and noble people spent the later half of the 20th Century watching PBS. The rest of us were watching “I Love Lucy,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dallas” and (ashamedly), “Cops.” Guess which audience is bigger?

Shirky spends a good deal of prose proving the point that we as a species, without rules, restrictions or the encumbrances of fees, fines or market conditions, are inherently good. While social networks can provide some wireframe of that level of unfiltered world, human beings, their governments and even well-intended group administrators will more often than not let those pesky hurdles in. It’s not that we aren’t good, but that our environment seldom facilitates that goodness.

It’s not that I think Shirky is wrong. His points are validated through tales of Linux and Apache and even LOLcats. (Okay, it’s not a social change-agent, but it at least makes us laugh.) But, like many a social media purist, his possibility world of Kumbaya-building Utopia is a stretch.

This bodes well for marketers, though. Today’s reality crap and Bieber-craze sensations that fuel pop culture will be replaced by more collaborative exploits in a socially connected web. That means there will be ad space and that companies can fake being human well enough to lure in the target audience every now and again. Commercialism and capitalism has a place in this world.

The bad news for marketers is that Shirky’s examples quietly illustrate that we can’t force meaningful social activities. They happen organically, if not accidentally. So instead of trying to build branded communities and produce “viral” videos, our best bet is to just be hanging around when something cool happens and be there, not conducting the train.

Still, Shirky gives us hope. He tells us we’ve got a lot of free time on our hands now that we’re migrating away from (and our younger generations aren’t even starting on) TV addiction. We have a golden opportunity to be transformative as a people, not wait on transformative technology to do it for us.

The question remains: Will we take ourselves up on the task.

Cognitive Surplus is available on Amazon (affiliate link, as are the others here) or at your local bookstore. It’s good. Go get it.

NOTE: Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the free review copy of the book and the image above.

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).