‘Cognitive Surplus’ by Clay Shirky

I just read Clay Shirky’s latest book Cognitive Surplus. Here are the bits that jumped out at me — either made me think about something differently, put something vague into words, or seemed otherwise worth remembering. It’s not a summary of the entire book, and I haven’t added my thoughts. The book’s worth a read.

And, for those interested this time I made the notes as I went along, typing them into SimpleNote on my iPhone. Just easy enough to not be too annoying, and it means I can simply copy and paste it all… here:

1. Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus

1-4 Early 18th century, London was in the grip of the Gin Craze. Many people getting very drunk. A response to the dramatic social change of so many people moving to the city, and older civic models trying to adapt. Laws were passed to try and ban gin drinking, but these were trying to tackle the symptom, not the cause. Gin drinking only subsided as new institutions etc arose in response to the wider changes.

4-8 TV has been the gin equivalent for our generations. In every year of the past fifty TV watching per capita has grown. Another response to societal changes. A substitute for declining social interactions.

8 Watching TV causes us to raise our materialism and aspirations, and underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations.

9-10 Something like one hundred million hours has been spent cumulatively on editing Wikipedia articles. Americans spend roughly two billion hours watching TV every year. 2000 Wikipedias per year.


It’s also easy to assume that the world as it currently exists represents some sort of ideal expression if society, and that all deviations from this sacred tradition are both shocking and bad. Although the Internet is already forty years old, and the web half that age, some people are still astonished that individual members of society, previously happy to spend most of their free time consuming, would start voluntarily making and sharing things.

18-19 Lolcats are an example of the stupidest kind of creative act. But a lolcat image isn’t just spreading the message of the image, it’s also saying you can play this game too. They have simple rules and are easy to make. “As long as the assumed purpose of media is to allow ordinary people to consume professionally created material, the proliferation of amateur-created stuff will seem incomprehensible. … What if we’ve always wanted to produce as well as consume, but no one offered us that opportunity?” UGC describes social acts, not just personal ones. The sharing is what makes the making fun. Before the twentieth century “a significant chunk of culture was participatory — local gatherings, events, and performances —- because where else could culture come from?”


Media is actually like a triathlon, with three different events: people like to consume, but they also like to produce, and to share. We’ve always enjoyed all three of those activities, but until recently, broadcast media rewarded only one of them.

28 Means, motive and opportunity. The hows, whys and whats, in this case, behind what we do with our cognitive surplus.

2. Means

31-38 Describes successful South Korean mass demonstrations against imports of US beef. Many of the protestors organised through non-political online forums.


The old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world, was an accident of history. Back when the online population was tiny, most of the people you knew in your daily life weren’t part of that population. Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part if it.

42-45 The introduction of the printing press meant that many new books could be printed, not just the same copies of the same books. But this could be risky — a new book might not be popular, but the cost had to paid up front. Many mew media have emerged since then, but all have the same Gutenberg economic model: “the producers have to decide what’s good before showing it to the audience.”

47 Edgar Allen Poe in 1845:

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber.

49-50 Getting used to scarce and valuable things becoming abundant and cheap can be disorienting.

When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity.


We need a new conception for the word [media], one that dispenses with the connotations of “something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs.”

Here’s mine: media is the connective tissue of society.

Media is how you know when and where your friend’s birthday party is. Media is how you know what’s happening in Tehran, who’s in charge in Tegucigalpa, or the price of tea in China. Media is how you know why Kierkegaard disagreed with Hegel. Media is how you know about anything more than ten yards away. All these things used to be separated into public media … and personal media. Now those two modes have fused.


The old choice between one-way public media … and two-way private media has now expanded to include a third option: two-way media that operates on a scale from private to public. Conversations among groups can now be carried out in the same media environments as broadcasts. This new option bridges the two older options of broadcast and communications media. All media can now slide from one to the other. A book can stimulate public discussion in a thousand places at once. An e-mail conversation can be published by it’s participants. An essay intended for public consumption can anchor a private argument, parts of which later become public. We move from public to private and back again in ways that weren’t possible in an era when public and private media, like the radio and the telephone, used different devices and different networks.

57-60 Some suggest that companies like YouTube and Facebook are exploiting their users, making profit from them sharing things on the sites for free. “Digital sharecropping.” But what if the contributors are sharing, not producing? What if they’re not workers? A website isn’t so much like a traditional media company, but more like a bar. People pay a premium (over what they’d pay for the same beer at home) because they like the bar’s atmosphere and the company, which they contribute to.

61 It used to be that citizens couldn’t say things in public. Consumers didn’t produce media content. Amateurs who tried to produce broadcast or print media “were regarded with suspicion or pity.”

72 Intrinsic motivations: those in which the activity itself is the reward. Extrinsic motivations: those where the reward is something external to the activity, eg, being paid. “Doing something because it interests you makes it a different kind of activity than doing it because you are reaping an external reward.” Increasing extrinsic motivations can crowd out intrinsic ones.

73 Research examples in which people have been less likely to agree to something when they’d be paid for it, rather than when they’d do it for duty, pride, etc.

83 In the past amateurs tended to work alone or in small groups; large groups require organising, which can be a full-time job.

In the past, amateurs have tended to do things in relative obscurity, while professionals seek public visibility. But we’re now seeing that this amateur / private behaviour isn’t linked after all. It required more work to be public, so amateurs weren’t. It’s now easy to find amateur groups, easy for them to organise, easy for them to share.


If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it — every successful example in this book involves harnessing those intrinsic motivations in one way or another. However, if you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.

4. Opportunity

98-99 When a surprising new thing happens we look for an explanation in the novelty, we assume the cause is in new tools (web, phones, software, etc). But we shouldn’t ask Why is this new? we should ask Why is it a surprise? Our beliefs about how the world works, about human nature, are often wrong.


Many of our behaviours are like memorising phone numbers [which we no longer have to do], held in place not by desire but by inconvenience. An they’re quick to disappear when the inconvenience does. Getting news from a piece of paper, having to be physically near a television at a certain time to see a certain show, keeping our vacation pictures to ourselves as if they were some big secret — not one of these behaviours made lick of sense.

105-110 The Ultimatum Game. When people are involved in transactions that involve other people, social, they act more fairly, less selfishly, than classic economic models would predict.


Assumptions that people are selfish can become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating systems that provide lots of individual freedom to act but not a lot of public value or management of collective resources for the greater public good. … Conversely, systems that assume people will act in ways that create public goods, and that give them opportunities and rewards for doing so, often let them work together better than neoclassical economics would predict.

118-119 Three ways of making complex things happen. Private sector, profit required. Public sector, high value tasks, but market compensation not required. (Nowadays we have various mixes of these two.) Social production, creation of value by a group for its members. The latter is now more useful and possible than it was before.


One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirtysomethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twentysomethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.

Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.

123-124 People criticised Napster users for being morally inferior, generally lawless. But at the same time crime rates were dropping throughout the industrialised world. The youth were more law-abiding than before, but taking part in a specific form of criminality.

On the other hand, “people who hailed Napster as evidence of a communitarian generation were also making a fundamental attribution error.” Napster users “simply wanted music for free.”


The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives.

5. Culture

140-143 According to Dominique Foray, taking advantage of shared knowledge requires four conditions: size of the community (the more people who know something, the more likely they are to collaborate on making use of it); cost of sharing knowledge (the lower the cost of transmitting knowledge, the more people that will know it); clarity of shared knowledge (recipes, standard formats — they aid transmission); cultural norms (people must understand each other — “communities of practice”).


Society is shaped as much by inconvenience as by capability, by what it can’t do as by what it can. Those two characteristics are deeply imbalanced, however, because the cultural assumptions that rise up around inconvenience simply seem like realism: study groups are small because large, active groups can’t work together on short deadlines. Groups of friends and neighbours carpool because there’s no way to match supply and demand at larger scale. Professionals have to create reference works because volunteer labor can’t be coordinated sufficiently well to make anything of value. And so on. Managing inconvenience, big or small, often involves creating a particular class of worker. College professors, restaurant reviewers, librarians, and file clerks all help keep the inconvenience to manageable levels for everyone else.

But when old inconveniences disappear the value of these roles is reduced.

6. Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

163-164 Membership of a group can be difficult enough that individuals need an emotional commitment in order to stay through the tough times. Groups must be effective, but also satisfy its members (without this satisfying getting in the way of achieving the group’s goals).

173 Sharing used to imply a high degree of connection between the two parties. Social media has changed that. Four points on the spectrum of sharing: personal sharing (eg Lolcats); communal sharing (within a group of collaborators); public sharing (collaborators creating a public resource, eg Apache); civic sharing (a group actively trying to transform society). At the first end, most value goes to the participants. At the latter, the participants’ society may change.

174 “Frozen sharing”: all the images, text, video, etc that have been personally shared that are no immediate use, but might be one day to someone.

7. Looking for the Mouse

194 “Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large.”

196 The way users behave is a reaction to the opportunities you give them.


You can have a large group of users. You can have an active group of users. You can have a group of users all paying attention to the same thing. Pick two, because you can’t have all three at the same time.

208-211 “What is the ideal way for a new technology to be integrated into society?”

Proponents of the new and defenders of the old can’t merely discuss the transition, because each group has systematic biases that make its overall vision untrustworthy; radicals and traditionalists start from different assumptions and usually end up talking past each other. The actual negotiated transaction can happen only by letting the radicals try everything, because given their inability to predict what will happen, and given the natural braking functions of social diffusion, most of it will fail. The negotiation that matters isn’t between radicals and traditionalists; instead it has to be with the citizens of the larger society, the only group who can legitimately decide how they want to live, given the new range of possibilities.

Photos taken 16 Jul 2010

16 Jul 2010 at Twitter

  • 08:29am: @EnemyOfChaos The 50 Least Influential Media Players?
  • 08:31am: @blech Not only am I now Mayor, but I was given THREE poached eggs today! Hard to believe the day could get any better.
  • 09:11am: @wendyinfutures Funny that Paris's precursor to the High Line only gets a brief mention at the very end.
  • 11:06am: It's that point in 'Skins Apprentice' where the team starts getting a little panicky about how much there is left to do.
  • 06:21pm: Phew, very lengthy worky phone calls over. Time for a quick walk in the evening sun to decompress. And decide what to have for dinner.
  • 06:34pm: I think I might happen to find myself at the Jerusalem Tavern, purely accidentally of course.

16 Jul 2010 in Links

On this day I was reading

Music listened to most that week

  1. Ikonika (29)
  2. Harlem (16)
  3. tUnE-yArDs (12)
  4. Serena-Maneesh (8)
  5. Andreya Triana (5)
  6. Louis Armstrong (5)
  7. Paolo Conte (5)
  8. The Roches (5)
  9. Aardvarck (3)
  10. Bonobo (3)

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