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Future Guy

Clay Shirky has perfected the art of the bold, meaningless epigram.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Cognitive Surplus

Future Guy

Clay Shirky, 2006

James Duncan Davidson / O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Creativity and Generosity
in a Connected Age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 256 pp., $25.95

Clay Shirky is the Internet’s most prominent ponderer. 

He teaches “Interactive Telecommunications” at New York University’s Tisch School, and when he isn’t teaching, he’s often speaking, on television and radio shows and podcasts, in speeches at technology conferences. He’s a bestselling author: Here Comes Everybody (2008) was translated into Dutch, Korean, Portuguese, and Chinese. He writes for Wired and various technology publications, and is often referenced by their reporters. Every six weeks or so the New York Times quotes Shirky in stories with headlines such as “Why Twitter Will Endure” or “Google Searches for a Foreign Policy.” Here, for instance, is Shirky in October 2008, explaining to Times readers the structural challenges facing newspapers: “The auto industry and the print industry have essentially the same problem. The older customers like the older products and the new customers like the new ones.”

Of course, the auto industry and the print industry are not facing anything like the same problems. Newspapers are suffering because (1) circulation eroded somewhat as readers shifted to online versions of the print product; (2) classified advertising moved to free websites while major ad sales cratered during the recession; and most important, (3) many publishers are saddled with gargantuan debt loads from a spree of expensive newspaper acquisitions in the late ’90s and early 21st century. The auto industry, on the other hand, faces no structural problems: There is no new alternative to the automobile. Car sales declined two years ago because gas prices rose steeply while the economy sputtered. As gas prices eased, sales rebounded. Once the recession ends, the auto market will look much as it did before.

But Shirkyisms—the koans that form his primary mode of communication—aren’t designed to be unpacked. In books, interviews, and speeches, Shirky’s epigrams are meant simultaneously to dazzle and soothe. To witness a Shirkyism (“The Internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics” or “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”) is to be confronted with insights that sound elegantly clever, yet never quite make sense. “Media is the connective tissue of society,” he’ll say. Another time he’ll warn that “No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds.” Really? Not opera or theater or oil-on-canvas or the novel?

Yet it’s not quite fair to hold Shirkyisms to any standard of coherence. Because Clay Shirky isn’t an academic or a public intellectual. He’s a guru. And as you might expect Shirkyisms form the backbone—or maybe the connective tissue—of Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
, where he argues that social networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) will change the world in wonderful ways.

Shirky’s thinking runs like this: Two billion people are now online. Right now most of those people spend their free time watching television. As television watching (which is bad) is replaced by Internet surfing (which is good) people will combine to create worthwhile virtual projects that become civic capital. Shirky’s Exhibit A is
Wikipedia, the estimable online encyclopedia created and maintained by an army of volunteers. Shirky estimates that, to date, Wikipedia has consumed 100 million man-hours of work. By contrast, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television a year. As those hours shift to the Internet, people will band together into working groups and create worthwhile endeavors out of this “cognitive surplus.”

Or as the Shirkyism goes: “The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes.” Because “the radius and half-life of shared effort have moved from household to global scale.” All thanks
to Facebook.

That’s not entirely fair: Shirky means so much more than Facebook. Cognitive Surplus references roughly a dozen websites which Shirky marks as the best fruits of our digital labors. There’s
Ushahidi, an African site which tracks tribal violence in real-time.
Couchsurfing.org helps people who don’t want to pay for hotels find volunteer hosts willing to let them sleep in their living room. The site
patientslikeme.com connects people suffering from the same diseases to one another so they can share information and personal stories.

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