Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 2010 Early Indications II: Book Review of Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

To those of us who for a long time have tried to understand the many impacts of the Internet, Clay Shirky stands among a very small group of folks who Get It. Usually without hyperbole and with a sense of both historicity and humor, Shirky has been asking not the obvious questions but the right ones. Explaining first the import then the implications of these questions has led him to topics ranging from pro-anorexia support groups to the Library of Congress cataloging system and flame wars to programming etiquette.

This book continues that useful eclecticism. Examples are both fashionably fresh and honorably historical: Josh Groban and Johannes Gutenberg appear in telling vignettes. Rural India, 18th-century London, Korean boy-band fans, and empty California swimming pools are important for the lessons they can reinforce. The usual cliches -- Amazon, Zappos, Second Life, even Twitter -- are pretty much invisible. As Shirky has done elsewhere, two conventional narratives of various phenomena are both shown to miss the point: in this case, neither "Young people are immoral" nor "Young people are blissfully generous with their possessions" adequately explained the rise in music file sharing.

In a career of writing cogently about what radical changes in connectivity do to people, groups, and institutions, Cognitive Surplus is, I believe, Shirky's best work yet. Not content with explaining how we have come to our peculiar juncture of human attention, organizational possibility, and technological adaptation, in a final chapter Shirky challenges us to do something meaningful -- to civic institutions, for civil liberties, with truth and beauty on the agenda -- with social media, mobility, ubiquitous Internet access, and the rest of our underutilized toolkit. At the same time, he avoids technological utopianism, acknowledging that the tools are morally neutral and can be used as easily for cheating on exams as for the cleanup of Pakistani squalor.

A core premise of the book holds that the Internet allows many people to reallocate their time. Specifically, the amount of time people in many countries spend watching television is so vast that even a nudge in the media landscape opens up some significant possibilities. Wikipedia, for example, is truly encyclopedic in its coverage: comprised of work in more than 240 languages, the effort has accumulated more than a billion edits, all by volunteers. At the time of his analysis, Shirkey noted, the estimated human effort to create Wikipedia was roughly equivalent to the time consumed by the television ads running on one average weekend.

So ample available time exists to do something, as opposed to lying on a coach passively receiving TV messages. What might people do with this "cognitive surplus"? Read War and Peace. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Join Bob Putnam's bowling league. Thus far, however, people haven't tended, in large numbers, to do these things, even though civic participation is apparently on the rise. Rather, people are connecting with other people on line: the shift from personal computing to social networking (Facebook alone hosts roughly half a billion accounts) is well underway but not yet well understood. Once we can communicate with people, anywhere, anytime, at close to zero economic cost, what do we do?

Here Shirky is inclusive: people help other people write and maintain operating systems, web servers, or browsers. They recaption silly cat pictures with sillier messages. They identify election irregularities, or ethnic discrimination, or needs for public safety and public welfare resources in both Haiti and the streets of London. The state of the technology landscape makes many things possible:

-Individuals do not need to be professionals to publish ideas; to disseminate pictures, music, or words; to have an opinion in the public discourse; or to analyze public data on crime or what have you.

-Based on an emerging subset of behavioral economics, we are discovering that markets are not the optimal organizing and motivational principle for every situation. For many kinds of social interaction, whether in regard to fishing grounds or blood donation, reputation- and community-based solutions work better than a monetary one. At the collective level, belonging to a group we believe in and having a chance to be generous are powerful motivators. For their part, individuals are motivated by autonomy (shaping and solving problems ourselves) and competence (over time, getting better at doing so). In addition, the introduction of money into an interaction may make it impossible for the group to perform as well as before money, even after the financial rules are removed (think of certain Native American tribes as tragic examples here, but day-care parents who come late to pick-up hit closer to home).

-People in groups can organize to achieve some goal, whether it is the pursuit of tissue type registration for organ donation, a boycott of BP, or making car pools scale beyond office-mates.

In sum: amateurs can enter many fields of communication, performing at various levels of quality for free and displacing professionals with credentials who used to be paid more. Low overhead in both technical skill and capital infrastructure opens media businesses to new entrants. Finally, the combination of intrinsic motivation for cognitive work and low coordination costs means that informal organizations can outperform firms along several axes: Linux and Wikipedia stand as vivid, but not isolated, examples here.

This new order of things complicates matters for incumbents: record-label executives, newspaper reporters, and travel agents can all testify to being on the wrong side of a disruptive force. It also raises questions that can trouble some people:

-"Who will preserve cultural quality?"
Without proper editors guarding access to the publishing machinery, lots of bad ideas might see an audience. (The problem is not new: before movable type, every published book was a masterpiece, while afterward, we eventually got dime novels.)

-"What happens if that knowledge falls into the wrong hands?"
Previous mechanisms of cultural authority, such as those attached to a physician or politician, might be undermined.

-"Where do you find the time?"
Excessive exposure to electronic games, virtual communities, or the universally suspect "chat rooms" might crowd out normal behavior, most likely including American Idol, Oprah, or NCIS.

In sum, as Shirky crystallizes the objections, "Shared, unmanaged effort might be fine for picnics and bowling leagues, but serious work is done for money, by people who work in proper organizations, with managers directing their work." (p. 162)

These, then, are the stakes. Just as the limited liability joint stock corporation was a historically specific convenience that solved many problems relating to industrial finance, so too are new organizational models becoming viable to address today's problems and possibilities. At the same time, they challenge the cognitive infrastructure that coevolved with industrial capitalism.

That infrastructure, in broad outline, builds on the following:

-Individuals are not equipped to determine their own contributions to a larger group or entity.

-Money is a widely useful yardstick.

-Material consumption is good for psychic and economic reasons.

-Organizations are more powerful than disorganized individuals, and the larger the organization, the more powerful it is.

If each of those pillars is, if not demolished, at least shown to be wobbly, what comes next? In the book's final chapter, Shirky moves beyond analysis to prescription, arguing that with surplus time and massive low-cost infrastructure at our disposal, we owe it to each other and to our children to create something more challenging and beneficial than the best of what's out there: "Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos." (p. 185), Ushahidi, and Responsible Citizens each represent a start rather than an acme. Digital society awaits, in short, its Gutenbergs, its Jeffersons, its Nightingales, its Ghandis. Shirky's concrete list of how-tos is likely to inform the blueprint utilized by this upcoming generation of innovators, reformers, and entrepreneurs. As a result, Cognitive Surplus is valuable for anyone needing to understand the potential ramifications of our historical moment.