Here Comes Everybody (2008) was an appeal for the power of collaboration and crowdsourcing which the internet had enabled. He sees this as a bottom-up process, a sharing culture of the internet, in terms of sharing by individuals of content, links, reposting and so on. This is followed by conversations, with one to many dialogue, where people learn from each other, in a meeting of minds. This can develop into collaboration where people coalesce around a common goal, a problem to fix or idea to be developed. Finally, a team forms for collective action, with division of labour, to get something made or done. This removes the traditional blocks in business and general human endeavour, in what he calls ‘mass amateurisation’. Wikipedia and mass publishing have been examples of this.
Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus (2010) moves us beyond the descriptive to the prescriptive. Cognitive Surplus is a direct assault on TV, as the post-war medium that soaked up almost all of our free time. TV “immobilizes even moderately attentive users, freezing them on chairs and couches”. This 50 year aberration made us less happy, pushing us more towards material satisfaction than social satisfaction. Year on year we spent more time in this “vast wasteland”. It became a medium of ‘social surrogacy’ replacing time spent with family and friends with imaginary friends.
Shirky then posed a fascinating question. What if even some of that cognitive effort and time were put to better use? Shirky’s cardinal argument is that this passive ‘cognitive surplus’, squandered on passive consumption, could be bountiful. For example, one year of US TV watching is the equivalent of 2000 Wikipedias. In practice, the internet has allowed us to ‘make and share’, with sharing being the driver. We produce rather than just consume and he says that “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act”. It’s Shirky’s belief that “It’s in our nature to interact – we enjoy it.” Being part of the web is being part of a global network and the numbers matter. More is better as we can harness this global cognitive surplus to create a new future that is less passive. It is a matter not of using it up but using it constructively through broad experimentation. He compares the web with the print and telephone revolution, in that it results not in a monoculture but increased and unpredictable forms of communication arguing for “as much chaos as we can stand".
TV, unlike the telephone and internet, is unbalanced. Being part of the web is being part of a global network and the numbers matter. More is better as we can harness this global cognitive surplus to create a new future that is less passive. It is a matter, not of using it up but using it constructively, through broad experimentation. He compares the web with the print and telephone revolution, in that it results not in a monoculture but increased and unpredictable forms of communication arguing for ‘as much chaos as we can stand’. Fundamentally, he sees interactivity and social communication as a more natural form of behaviour, destroyed by TV, but coming back to the fore.
In 2015, in the article The Digital Revolution in Higher Education has already happened. No one noticed, Shirky claimed that online learning was already the norm for many with most colleges and most students doing this in some form. He sees the whole date as being, wrongly, about elite four-year colleges, when the real revolution is taking place elsewhere. He also sees the Higher Education system shrink to much fewer and larger organisations, as online learning takes hold
Shirky’s vision of a world increasingly shaped by mass amateurs and collaboration has not quite come to pass. Yet progress has been steady. It has opened up opportunities for small businesses, projects, activities and publishing on a global scale. On the other hand, the power of large tech companies has intensified. Similarly, his predictions for the changes in Higher Education have not yet come to pass, although the Covid period is certainly putting them under strain.
Shirky was a new type of commentator, active online, largely concerned with the shift from traditional mass media to online culture. He had and still has wide popular appeal, based on his published books. The shift from old to new media continues as does his predicted shift to a more decentralised world.
Shirky, C., 2010. Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin UK.
Shirky, C., 2009. Here comes everybody: How change happens when people come together. Penguin UK.