It was with a bit of nostalgia for my college days (where I majored in media theory) that I picked up Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus for this week. Were Clay and I friends, I might tell him he could have picked a less intimidating title, one that wouldn’t make people frown when I tell them what I’m reading. The name won’t scare off anyone who picked up Surplus for the author himself (or anyone who makes a habit of reading manifestos on the merits of new media), but it might scare off some readers who would otherwise be greatly served by hearing what Shirky has to say.
If you’ve got even a little inner media wonk, this is a truly fascinating book. If you don’t, or if you’re turned off by a title that includes the word “cognitive,” then just hang around me, as I’ve spent the better part of the last week describing Shirky’s central ideas to friends, most of whom have at least pretended to find them interesting. Without going into too much detail, the gist of Cognitive Surplus is this: Over the last 50 years, we’ve had a steady increase in free time, most of which we’ve spent watching television (oh, sweet television). It’s only in the last five or so years that we’ve seen the proliferation of media that doesn’t command passive viewership, but rather engagement. In the short term—and for those people who still insist Twitter is about 140-character sandwich descriptions—this just means a lot of frivolity online. But it can also mean great things. If every person in the world has one hour of free time per day, the power of all that time combined is pretty enormous. And if each of those people spends that hour engaging/interacting/contributing instead of consuming, we get things like Wikipedia. Like Twitter-enabled political unrest. Like nonprofits soliciting donations from a worldwide fan base. Like CouchSurfing.com. In other words, it doesn’t all have to be about what you’re eating.There are many more elements to Shirky’s argument, and I’m running the risk of not doing it justice by simplifying it this much. But the central idea, or at least the one that I think would best serve the residual doubters of social media—not just in terms of cultural importance, but as an agent of change—is that the way we interact now isn’t worse, it’s just different. Shirky gives plenty of examples, most of which I enjoyed enough as “Aha!” moments that I won’t give them away here. Instead, I’ll refer to a relevant though unrelated quote that’s encouraged me to make or embrace change in my own life (read: attempt using my stove): “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”
One of the biggest lessons from Shirky’s book is the mistake it is to assume that the way we’ve always done things is the way we always should, or the way things are “supposed to be.” I work in publishing, so this theme really resonated with me, but this blog itself is an example of the kind of change Shirky is talking about. Not even two decades ago, I’d have struggled to find any forum for sharing personal book reviews, let alone an audience for them. After all, I don’t work at the Times; no one pays me for this (yet). Traditionally, I’ve always been a consumer, and therefore beholden to the opinions of my “betters” in the professional writing sector. Flash forward to October 2010: It took me five minutes to start this blog. Now I can write hundreds, nay, thousands, of words on any book I choose, regardless of whether 5 people or 500 are paying attention (I’ll let you guess which is closer to the real count). Nor am I the only (or best) example: Local indie bookstores now interact with customers on Twitter, authors engage directly with readers online, Stephen Elliott’s The Daily Rumpus lets users conduct a global book club without ever meeting face to face. And I haven’t even mentioned e-readers.
I’ll gladly admit a certain hesitation when it comes to change—after all, I’m the girl with 250+ unread books in her apartment, something of a paperback silo for when Kindle officially takes over (or nuclear war begins). But these types of changes are going to happen whether I like them or not, and whether I embrace them or not. Instead of backing away, there’s a lot to be said for viewing them as opportunities, or enablers of opportunities. In a landscape of criticism of new media—it makes us dumber, shortens our attention span, destroys privacy and generally melts our brains—Shirky’s argument is refreshing and managed to convince even closet Luddite me.
Now, time to go tweet about my breakfast.
TITLE: Cognitive Surplus
AUTHOR: Clay Shirky
PAGES: 213 (in hardback)
ALSO WROTE: Here Comes Everybody
SORTA LIKE: The Shallows, Bowling Alone
FIRST LINE: “In the 1720s, London was busy getting drunk. Really drunk.”