Book summary: Cognitive Surplus (II)

This is the second part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover chapters “Culture” and “Personal, Communal, Public, Civic”. EDIT: You can read parts one and three in this blog.


Day care fines story on p.131. Knowledge is the most combinable thing we have, but taking advantage of it requires special conditions (“The Economics of Knowledge” by Dominique Foray): (1) size of the community, (2) cost of sharing knowledge, (3) clarity of knowledge shared (also for people outside the group) and (4) culture (ie. community’s set of shared assumptions about its work and member relations with one another).

Society is shaped as much by inconvenience as by capability. When things that used to be inconvenient stop being so, things change. Some inconvenience-managing professions, like restaurant critics, stop being so useful or change their role when it’s easy to access dozens of opinions of people who have eaten there. A common objection to the spread of shared knowledge is that we need professional skill (“you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned it from Wikipedia”). Two weaknesses of this thought: (1) you don’t want a brain surgery from someone that learned in Encyclopaedia Britannica either, and (2) it suggests you should always choose professional over amateur, which nobody does (even people using that argument).

Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

We come from an era in which sharing was thought to be inherently (not accidentally) limited to small groups. Big change in social production is not utopia: throwing off old constraints won’t leave us without constraints, just with new ones. For most groups, the primary threat is internal: the risk of falling into emotionally satisfying but ineffective behaviour (p.163-164).

Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk-free, and new opportunity requires ways to manage risk (couch surfing vs. “Brides on Tour” story, p.166-168).

Our new freedom to act in concert and in public is good at a personal level, but also others. Sharing has a spectrum, with four interesting points:

  1. Personal. Hobbyists, think icanhascheezburger. Between uncoordinated individuals.

  2. Communal. Inside a group of collaborators (eg. meetup group for post-partum depression).

  3. Public. People actively creating a public resource (e.g. the Apache project).

  4. Civic. Groups actively trying to change society, like Pink Chaddi.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have lolcats of fan-fiction: it’s that the latter groups are harder to create and maintain (“what you want” vs. “what you need”), and they benefit society more.

No fixed set of rules for governing groups that create social value (eBay cheater story, p.177-178), but two universals: a group must defend itself against external and internal threats. The former are more attention-getting, but the latter are more serious in keeping a group of volunteers committed and focused. Understanding how to create/maintain a group like this is one of the great challenges of our era.

And that was it for the second part. The next part will cover the last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse”.