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Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”: Is creating and sharing always a more moral choice than consuming?

In 1998, People magazine, trying to figure out how to use this new-ish tool called the World Wide Web, launched a poll asking readers to vote for’s Most Beautiful Person of the year. There were the obvious contenders — Kate Winslet, Leonardo diCaprio — and then, thanks to a Howard Stern fan named Kevin Renzulli, a write-in candidate emerged: Henry Joseph Nasiff, Jr., better known as Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. An occasional presence on Stern’s shock-jockey-y radio show, Hank — whose nickname pretty well sums up his act — soon found himself on the receiving end of a mischievous voting campaign that spread from Renzulli to Stern to online message boards and mailing lists.

By the time the poll closed, Hank had won — handily — with nearly a quarter of a million votes. (DiCaprio? 14,000.)

In Cognitive Surplus, his fantastic follow-up to Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains what HTADD can teach us about human communications: “If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it,” he notes. On the other hand: “[I]f you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.”

Scarcity vs. abundance

Shirky may be a technologist and a pragmatist and, in the best sense, a futurist; what gives his thinking its unique verve, though, is that he also thinks like an economist. To read his work is to be presented with a world defined by the relationships it contains: the exchanges it fosters, the negotiations it demands, the tugs and torques of transaction. In the Shirkian vision of our information economy, supply-and-demand, scarcity-and-abundance, and similar polar pairings aren’t merely frames for coaxing complex realities into bite-sized specimens of simplicity; they’re very real tensions that, in their polarity, act as characters in the epic poem of everyday life.

In Cognitive Surplus, as in Here Comes Everybody, the protagonist is abundance itself. Size, you know, matters. And, more specifically, the more matters: The more people we have participating in media, and the more people we have consuming it — and the more people we have, in particular, creating it — the better. Not because bigger is implicitly better than the alternative compact, but because abundance changes the value proposition of media as a resource. “Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance,” Shirky points out, “because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change.” But “abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.”

Cognitive Surplus, in other words — the book, and the concept it’s named for — pivots on paradox: The more abundant our media, the less specific value we’ll place on it, and, therefore, the more generally valuable it will become. We have to be willing to waste our informational resources in order to preserve them. If you love something…set it free.

Love vs. money

So the book’s easiest takeaway, as far as journalism goes, is that we should be willing to experiment with our media: to be open to the organic, to embrace new methods and modes of production and consumption, to trust in abundance. But, then, that’s both too obvious (does anyone really think we shouldn’t be experimenting at this point?) and too reductive a conclusion for a book whose implied premise is the new primacy of communality itself. Shirky isn’t simply asking us to rethink our media systems (although, sure, that’s part of it, too); he’s really asking us to embrace collectivity in our information — in its consumption, but also in its creation.

And that’s actually a pretty explosive proposition. The world of “post-Gutenberg economics,” as Shirky calls it — a world defined, above all, by the limitations of the means of (media) production, be they printing presses or broadcast towers — was a world that ratified the individual (the individual person, the individual institution) as the source of informational authority. This was by necessity rather than, strictly, design: In an economy where freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, the owners in question will have to be limited in number; distributed authority is also diffused authority. When the power of the press belongs to everyone, the power of the press belongs to no one.

But now we’re moving, increasingly and probably inevitably, toward a media world of distributed authority. That’s a premise not only of Cognitive Surplus, but of the majority of Shirky’s writings — and it’s a shift that is, it hardly needs to be said, a good thing. But it also means, to extrapolate a bit from the premises of the cognitive surplus, that the reflexively individualistic assumptions we often hold about the media — from the primacy of brand structures to the narrative authority of the individual correspondent to the notion of the singular article/issue/publication as a self-contained source of knowledge itself — were not immutable principles (were not, in fact, principles at all), but rather circumstantial realities. Realities that can — and, indeed, will — change as our circumstances do.

And now that scarcity is being replaced by abundance, our whole relationship with our media is changing. The new communality of our news technologies — the web’s discursive impulses, the explosive nature of the hyperlink — means that news is, increasingly, a collective endeavor. And we’re just now beginning to see the implications of that shift. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky focused on Wikipedia as a repository of our cognitive surplus; in its sequel, he focuses on Ushahidi and LOLCats and PickupPal and the Pink Chaddi campaign and, yes, the promotional efforts made on behalf of our friend Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf. What those projects have in common is not simply the fact that they’re the result of teamwork, the I serving the we; they’re also the result of the dissolution of the I into the broader sphere of the we. The projects Shirky discusses are, in the strictest sense, authorless; in a wikified approach to media, individual actors feed — and are dissolved into — the communal.

And: They’re fine with that. Because the point, for them, isn’t external reward, financial or reputational or otherwise; it’s the intrinsic pleasure of creation itself. Just as we’re hard-wired to love, Shirky argues, we are hard-wired to create, to produce, to share. As he reminds us: “amateur” derives from the Latin amare. A corollary to “the Internet runs on love” is that it does so because we run on love.

Creativity vs. creation

As a line of logic, that’s doubly provocative. First — without getting into the whole “is he or isn’t he (a web utopian)?” debate — there’s the chasm between the shifts Shirky describes and what we currently tend to think of when we think of The Media. Our news economy is nowhere near comprehensively communal. It’s one whose architecture is built on the coarser realities of individuality: brands, bylines, singular outlets that treat information as proprietary. It’s one where the iPad promises salvation-of-brands by way of isolation-of-brands — and where the battle of open web-vs.-walled garden, the case of Google v. Apple, seems to be locked, at the moment, in a stalemate.

It’s an economy, in other words, that doesn’t run on love. It runs on more familiarly capitalistic currencies: money, power, self-interest.

But, then, the trends Shirky describes are just that. He’s not defining a holistic reality so much as identifying small tears in the fabric of our textured media system that will, inevitably, expand. Cognitive Surplus deals with trajectory. And the more provocative aspect of the book, anyway, is one built into the framework of the cognitive surplus itself: the notion of creativity as a commodity. A key premise of the surplus idea is that television has sucked up our creative energies, siphoning them away from the communality of culture and allowing them to pool, unused, in the moon-dents in our couches. And that, more to the point, with the web gradually reclaiming our free time, we can refocus those energies of creative output. Blogging, uploading photos, editing Wikipedia entries — these are all symptoms of the surplus put to use. And they should be celebrated as such.

That rings true, almost viscerally: Not only has the web empowered our expression as never before, but I think we all kind of assumed that Married…with Children somehow portended apocalypse. You don’t have to be a Postmanite to appreciate the sense-dulling effect of the TV screen. “Boob tube,” etc.

But the problem with TV, in this framing, is its very teeveeness; the villain is the medium itself. The differences in value between, say, The Wire and Wipeout, here, don’t much matter — both are TV shows, and that’s what defines them. Which means that watching them is a passive pursuit. Which means that watching them is, de facto, a worse way — a less generous way, a more selfish way — to spend time than interacting online. As Shirky puts it: “[E]ven the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.”

The risk in this, though, for journalism, is to value creation over creativity, output over impulse. Steven Berlin Johnson may have been technically correct when, channeling Jeff Jarvis, he noted that in our newly connected world, there is something profoundly selfish in not sharing; but there’s a fine line between Shirky’s eminently correct argument — that TV consumption has been generally pernicious in its very passivity — and a commodified reading of time itself. Is the ideal to be always producing, always sharing? Is creating cultural products always more generous, more communally valuable, than consuming them? And why, in this context, would TV-watching be any different from that quintessentially introverted practice that is reading a book?

Part of Shirky’s immense appeal, as a thinker and a writer, is his man-of-science/man-of-faith mix; he is a champion of what can be, collectively — but, at the same time, inherent in his work is a deep suspicion of inherence itself. (Nothing is sacred, but everything might be.) And if we’re looking for journalistic takeaways from Cognitive Surplus, one might be this: We need to be similarly respectful of principles and open to challenging them — and similarly aware of past and future. Time itself, both as a context and a commodity, is a crucial factor in our journalism — and how we choose to leverage it will determine what our current journalism becomes. It’s not just about what to publish, what to filter — but about when to publish, when to filter. And there’s something to be said for preserving, to some degree, a filter-first approach to publication: for taking culture in, receptively if not passively, before putting culture out. For not producing — or, at least, for producing strategically. And for creating infrastructures of filtration that balance the obvious benefits of extroversion with the less obvious, but still powerful, benefits of looking inward.

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  • Patrick Phalen

    This is the most astute and genuinely enlightening book review I’ve read in ages. I read all of Shirky’s books (haven’t gotten to CS yet) and already admire the guy greatly, but you’ve given me a sharper lens with which to view his ideas. A real contribution to broader understanding. Bravo!

    Ms Garber, you are now my official filter for all things Shirky. Oh the irony? ;-)

  • Matt Schafer

    I completely agree with Mr. Phalen. I feel like I just read the entire book after reading you synthesis. Great article.

  • Griff Wigley

    Megan, that was not only a well-done review but a helluva good read… more entertaining than watching Keith Olbermann. ;-)

    Alas, after passively consuming your blog content these past 10 minutes, I now feel morally compelled to tweet and blog about it. Surplus indeed.

  • Tim Pearson

    Extra-ordinarily well-written and well-worth sharing. I’m spreading the word too. More surplus.

  • Marcus O’Donnell

    As above – brilliant, beautifully crafted review. I think you are spot on about the Wire/Wipeout distinction. Thinking about this it occurs to me – as you hint at in your final para – that neither sharing nor consuming are singular events locked in time, they can be overlapping and interacting process. Watching the Wire may well inspire us to get out our video camera and hit the streets and then load something to YouTube. A writer who has never consumed great writing is going to have a tough time developing and ditto for a film/maker videographer who has never consumed good films/TV. Indeed there are probably very few people who load stuff up to YouTube who haven’t spent hours consuming it beforehand.

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  • CharlieBeckett

    Excellent review and it gets to the core of the problem for journalism – which Clay doesn’t do himself. What are the new filtration mechanisms that manage to leverage cooperation but address the issue of time and selection that makes it into journalism?
    We tried to address this by looking at networked journalism in the UK in our most recent report available here:
    Charlie Beckett, Polis, LSE

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  • Balderdash


    Shirky is just the latest in a long history of longwinded poseurs confusing worship of the new with deep thought, using arcane multi-syllabic words to feign advanced intelligence

    A mob lynching is not better justice than a court of law just because the former is a near-spontaneous, shared, crowd-sourced collective action, and the former is a hidebound archaic top-down judicial structure

    A play written and performed by committee, or on a wiki, is not by definition more relevant or even contemporary than a work by say, August Wilson

    And for heaven’s sake, are we still calling TV the vast wasteland? Is Shirky really unable to justify his silly hypotheses without needing to remind us that some TV shows are ridiculous? Jeez, now that’s insight!

    I’m sure Shirky means well, and is sincere, but sometimes a little common sense is more valuable than all the intellectual windstorms — and common sense says that individual creators, whether artists, thinkers, editors or journalists or whatever, have and will always have enormous value to society. And mob lynchings will never take the place of courtrooms, even if the lynchings are created, organized, recorded and shared on cel phones

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  • Patrick Phalen


    McLuhan said, “First we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us.” We never sufficiently understand the changes our tool-shaping ways create except in hindsight. Yet, it is vitally important that we have effective criticism and understanding of technology-mediated cultural change, lest we be subjugated by despots who do understand and seize control of them.

    The global internetworking of our species in a vast web of communication is the most profound technology-mediated change we’ve undergone since Gutenberg. In the face of it, the appellation “TV wasteland” still serves as a convenient shorthand to call up the cultural passivity that phase engendered. If every age can be defined by what it wastes, what exactly did we waste in the vast TV wasteland? Perhaps our individual empowerment to create and to voice our individual creativity, absent the impediments of huge printing presses and broadcast networks.

    But more important, if we give credence to the notion that our entering the Gutenberg Galaxy engendered individualism, the Renaissance, the rise of the sciences, Capitalism, then what monumental changes can we expect from the Internet that we’re all increasingly immersed in? I for one am anxious to know and welcome deep thinking and insight from people like Clay Shirky.

    I also welcome alternative voices like Jaron Lanier, Nicholas Carr and even (begrudgingly) Andrew Keen to this debate. They call into question what we stand to lose if we uncritically give in to The Borg of collective intelligence and they help to shape our real understanding.

    But I don’t see Shirky as being uncritical of the repercussions of technology. And I challenge you to point out a paragraph in one of his books where he exhibits the kind of obscurantism of which you accuse him. Personally, I find him to write clearly and cogently and to give shape to concepts that very often feel just on the tip of my tongue, but as yet unformed. That’s valuable.

    Further, please point to where in his writings you find the uncritical techno-boosterism of which you accuse him. In fact, I wonder if you have actually read his books or are just shooting from the hip. ;-)

  • Balderdash

    @Patrick Phalen

    Unfortunately, the world is full of advocates in pursuit of data.

    Clay Shirky is one of them.

  • Tim

    To be or not to be – that is the question!!,_or_not_to_be

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  • Anonymous

    Nice reference lol
    Here’s mine: You never know when you’re gonna need to download Youtube video :)