Cognitive Surplus | Clay Shirky

Summary of: Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators
By: Clay Shirky


Imagine being part of a world that has transitioned from passive consumption of entertainment and information to actively building connections and collaborating with people from all over the globe. The book ‘Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators’ by Clay Shirky describes such a transformation in society, reminiscent of London’s adaptation to gin consumption in the 1720s. This summary highlights how people are now utilizing their free time and cognitive resources to create value through collective efforts, such as Wikipedia, and how motivating factors drive action on the internet.

The Evolution of Self-Medication

The story of how gin helped rural migrants adapt to the perplexing vagaries of city life in 1720s London and how today’s workers self-medicate using television as a way to fill extra time and forget life’s pressures is recounted in this book summary. With the advent of the internet and online social media, workers are now able to engage actively with each other in new ways to have fun, share information, do good deeds, and improve the world, all thanks to the cognitive surplus created by humanity’s trillion hours of free time annually. These three factors of means, motive, and opportunity elucidate the hows, whats, and whys behind cognitive surplus.

The Power of Passionate Online Communities

In 2008, South Korea experienced one of its largest protests since the demand for democracy in 1987. This time, teenagers, particularly girls gathered in Cheonggyecheon Park to demonstrate against the government’s decision to resume US beef imports. The power of online conversations among these teenage girls, united by their concerns, brought them together to form a community through a website provided by the boy band, Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK). The girls stayed in the park every night, earning them the name “candlelight girls.” Eventually, the protests led to President Lee Myung-bak’s entire cabinet stepping down and the president apologizing for not involving citizens in the decision-making process. This event showed that any group, given the means to unite, can accomplish significant things, even in their spare time. In a world where publishing is now accessible to everyone, these girls embody the power of passionate online communities.

The Power of Online Voting

In 1998, People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” backfired when online voters rebelled against the magazine’s presumptions. Kevin Renzulli, owner of the “King of All Media” website, initiated a write-in campaign to promote Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf, as the most attractive person instead. The campaign spread like wildfire, and Hank ended up winning with nearly 250,000 votes. This incident shows that people don’t like being manipulated or taken for granted. Rather, they want to have a say in matters and assert their independence. Online voting provides a means for individuals to act on their desire for autonomy, competence, and generosity. It empowers people to voice their opinions and supports the notion that we are becoming each other’s infrastructure.

The Power of Internet Collaboration

The Internet is a platform of opportunities where individuals unite to create something exceptional. A perfect example of this is the Apache server, which provides a plethora of web pages at no cost. Apache’s owners permit users to download and improve it for free. Thousands of programmers worldwide have made countless tweaks to enhance its functionality. This global effort showcases the power of volunteers who combine their cognitive capability to obtain a substantial outcome at minimal expense and effort. The Internet is the ultimate resource for like-minded people to collaborate on innovative projects.

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