Book summary: Cognitive Surplus (I)

This is the first part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus”, “Means”, “Motive” and “Opportunity”. EDIT: You can read parts two and three in this blog.

1. Gin, TV and Cognitive Surplus

The Gin craze in early 1700 in England didn’t stop because of laws. It was treated as the problem to be solved, but was the reaction to the problem (dramatic social change and inability to adapt). Since World War II, increases in GDP and others have forced the industrialised world to deal with free time on a national scale. We didn’t watch good or bad TV: the decision to watch it often preceded any concern about what was being shown. TV became the gin. We have known the effects of TV on happiness for long, but it kept growing because it was the reaction to the problem (free time).

Wikipedia is roughly 100 million hours of human thought. Americans watch roughly 200 billion hours of TV a year: that’s 2000 Wikipedias annually. Something that makes today remarkable is that we can treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects. Society never knows what to do with a surplus at first (hence “surplus”). Passive participation is easier… but things are changing (less TV watched, not pure consumers anymore). Some TV executives think that youngsters behaviour will change when they grow up and they will want to just sit in front of the TV (“milkshake mistake”, p. 13).

Lessons learned from the Ushahidi service (p.15): People want to do something to make the world a better place. They will help if invited. Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers for trying new things. No need for fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus, phones are enough. One you have figured out how to harness, other can replicate your technique.

For the first time in history, being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens.

2. Means

Story of Korean boy band fan activists, p.32. The old view of online as a separate space was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most people you knew in your daily life were not part of it.

Edgar Allan Poe quote, p.47 (summary: “multiplication of books is evil”). Correct, but freedom has compensating values, like increase of experimentation. It’s not choosing between trash or classics (p.50), we get both. And we can’t get new classics without experimenting.

We have to rethink the basic concept of media: it’s society’s connective tissue. It’s how you know about anything more than 10 yards away. It used to be separated into public media and personal media (letters, phone calls). People surprised at new behaviour assume behaviour is a stable category, but it isn’t: human motivations change little, but opportunity can change a lot.

3. Motive

Story about Grobanites for Charity on p.67-68. The important question is not “where did they find the time?”, it’s “why create a separate entity for themselves?”. They didn’t take any money for expenses (see p.75)! Reference to experiment when people are less interested in a task after being paid for it, p.71.

There are two intrinsic personal motivations: be autonomous and desire to be competent. Social motivations: connectedness/membership and sharing/generosity. Benkler and Nissenbaum (p.78) conclude that social motivations reinforce personal ones.

When coordinating group action was hard, most amateur groups stayed small and informal. With today’s tools, we see a new hybrid: large, public, amateur groups. Globalisation isn’t necessarily about size, but about scope: you can have a tiny global organisation. Amateurs generally use public access not to reach the broadest possible audience, but people like themselves. If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy, competence, or generosity and sharing, they might take you up for it. Only pretending might make people want to revolt (Angry Drunken Dwarf story, p.94).

4. Opportunity

Story of experiment rejecting unfair splits (p.106-108). People derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing, but doesn’t happen against computers.

Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.