Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Review: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky (NY: Penguin Press, 2010) 242 pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-253-7

This review also appears in the SJSU SLIS Alumni Association Newsletter in a slightly different form. Access it here.

Clay Shirky first caught my attention in an article by Carol Tenopir in Library Journal (May 2010) in which she reported on his assertion that social tagging is a better way of organizing information than the Dewey Decimal Classification system. Outrageous! I had always respected Tenopir and often flip straight to her articles when I get the LJ. Could she be accepting this idea? It was her mention of his curiously titled book, Here Comes Everybody (2008), which ultimately compelled me to look him up. That’s when I discovered that he teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, does consulting for groups such as Microsoft, the Library of Congress, and LEGO, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Business 2.0, and Wired, among others and has been a keynote speaker for conferences such as NFAIS (National Federation of Advanced Information Services) where Tenopir had heard him speak. By the time I learned about him, Cognitive Surplus had just come out as a follow-up. Reviews of both books on Amazon were positive but I decided to start with the more recent publication and find out if it was possible to appreciate the “sequel” on its own merit. It was.

“Cognitive surplus” is what Shirky calls the raw materials of cumulative human free time combined with the means, motive, and opportunity to use it in collaborative ways. Shirky asserts that Americans and others in the developed world have amassed an enormous amount of free time with the advent of the 40-hour work week and improved health and longevity, but until recently, this time has been wrapped up in watching TV as an audience rather than participating in activities for the social good. He believes, however, that people have a natural desire to be creative and to work together but we have simply lacked the means and opportunity to demonstrate our generosity.

Social scientists will appreciate Shirky as he uses economic terms to argue that this is a revolutionary social phenomenon but also draws illustrations from history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. For instance, he describes the sociological circumstances under which the means (i.e., social media) have presented opportunities (i.e., free accounts) for people to creatively work together (organizational behavior.) He has a way of setting up and explaining theories in historical context with story-telling skill which is easy to follow. Drawing parallels from history he makes a compelling argument that this is truly a revolutionary time. He effectively draws on numerous psychological studies to argue that humans are motivated to contribute to the greater good.

To support this optimistic view of human nature, Shirky gives example after example of how groups of like-minded people have found each other online and, because of a shared purpose, are driven to do something good with their extra time and energy. Rather than considering online activities as an extension of TV watching (as entertainment value) or a means of escaping from information overload, he ascribes altruism as a major motivation for people to participate in online social networking.

Finally, he addresses the question of harnessing this unpredictable but powerful energy of cognitive surplus. How can organizations (i.e., libraries) use this great creative resource for its purposes? His advice is to reward experimentation. The only way to see what’s going to work is to let it happen and reward positive outcomes. As the subtitle of his first book, The Power of Organizing without Organizations, implies, it is going to happen with or without the assistance of structured organizations. The best an organization can hope for is to keep their eyes peeled for emerging collaborative activities, not stand in their way, and recognize and enable those that further their purposes.

The book is scholarly, relational, thought provoking, and very readable. I don’t think it is necessary to have read Here Comes Everybody to appreciate the value of Cognitive Surplus. I recommend it to anyone who is trying to get their head around the revolutionary changes happening in the “connective tissue of society” (media). Librarians will recognize the truth of what Shirky observes and realize that it has a profound effect on how we practice our core competencies to serve our patrons’ information needs.

Review by Robin Hartman, MLIS

Robin Hartman is Director of Library Services at Hope International University.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

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