Thoughts on Clay Shirky’s concept of “Cognitive surplus”

I recently came across various reviews and marketing for Clay Shirky’s new book ‘Cognitive surplus‘.  While deceptively simple, I love the “concept” of ‘Cognitive surplus’ – in two words it sums up intellectual and creative potential, and the question as to what we do with that.

One of the key points of Clay’s argument is the disparity between time spent watching television (‘consuming’) and time spent ‘creating’ / ‘contributing’, and the consequent waste of our intellectual and creative potential during this time (he compares the “200 billion hours spent by Americans annually watching TV“, and the “100 million hours so far invested in creating Wikipedia“).

David McCandle has a prepared a brilliant, simple visualization of this on his excellent website ‘Information is beautiful’ (which I see as a sort of artistic version of my thoughts on ‘Killer charts’, which I blogged about a while ago).

It was that graphic, sent to me in a link in an email from a friend, that prompted me into this post, and the following thoughts.

Creation and Contribution

If you added to the “200 billion hours watching TV” another “X billion hours of internet surfing/browsing” (mySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) then it gets even bigger … although at some point, increases in size cease to matter – it was big before, it’s still big, just bigger …

This is one of the best arguments to ask the question, to anyone who cares to answer:

“So what do you contribute/create, instead of endless [mindless?] consumption?”

This, in turn, leads me to encourage people to blog (aka ‘web-log’) – regularly write, or create, about anything you want, but don’t just consume.

A blog doesn’t have to just be written ‘essays’ – one can present, discuss, podcast, photostream, curate, or even just comment on others’ work – but only reading, watching and listening, without ever sharing, is not delivering one’s true potential.

Perhaps the easiest of these ‘options’ is to curate – collating and re-packaging facts, views and opinions from different sources observed, and then re-distributing, or, better, cross-referencing, contrasting and opining upon their combined perspective, and any new ideas that become possible – this is unique to the experiences of each person, and adds to the overall knowledge base (if shared).  Even just the sharing/forwarding of interesting links, that you come across on the internet or that other friends share with you, via Twitter or Facebook is a good start for this (in fact, Twitter is great for this!).


Don’t get me wrong – the consumption part is important too.  It allows us to:

  1. learn, cross-reference, and form opinions (necessary for our own creativity),
  2. interact with others who are contributing and sharing, and therefore reward them (in validation, feedback, gratitude, and co-development of their thoughts), and
  3. leverage our combined resources to achieve more than the sum of the total (working on ideas together brings heterogenous development ideas that would likely otherwise be lost).

It can also be fun.

But television (TV), a mostly uni-directional media stream causes imbalances in creation versus consumption – the internet allows (but doesn’t guarantee) a re-balancing of creation and consumption.

Blogs have been possible for more than a decade, but recent enhancements in computer power, cost reduction, broadband speed, internet penetration, and software development (blogging platforms like WordPress, social media platforms like Facebook, and micro-blogging sites like Twitter) have massively reduced the barriers to entry into online contribution and sharing.

For my part, having gotten into social media, my TV consumption has declined significantly, replaced by more focused media consumption via the Internet (and some contribution, via this blog, Facebook, and Twitter).

Selected further sources for “Cognitive surplus” discussion/review

So far I’ve been following this discussion in:

  • The Economist’s ‘Ideas Economy’ (which actually has very little on this topic, but first brought my attention to it, via their Facebook feed),
  • Time magazine (an interesting interview with Clay Shirky),
  • Bloomberg Businessweek magazine (a refreshingly critical perspective – more on this below),
  • (especially the customer comments on the book),
  • Wired magazine (interview with Dan Pink and Clay Shirky, focusing on motivational side of this discussion), and
  • Clay’s TED Talk on this topic (but bizarrely not, at the time of writing, his website/blog, which has not yet been updated for news of his new book …).

I’ve not read Clay’s book yet, as I’m hoping to download the Kindle version (it seems that in this case, either the publisher or Amazon has so far decided to promote old media over new media, and launch only the paper versions initially, and not yet a Kindle version – again, bizarre, since one of core concepts of ‘Cognitive surplus’ seems to be leveraging the potential of the internet).

A few thoughts on counter arguments

  • Consumption isn’t entirely wasteful – it makes us who we are, and determines how we interact with other people, what our values are, what we talk about, etc.  All true, but new technologies, in particular the internet, allow us to share with, and benefit from a much broader population (not just those we interact with daily), as well as find critical mass to investigate niche topics deeper.
  • Possible risks to contributing online – the risks are mostly not new (copyright, libel, or just saying something stupid), and so common sense, and a cautious, but optimistic attitude can help here. I believe the opportunities outweigh the risks, and it is important to be open and let others see you for who you are (the feedback might even help you develop).
  • Accumulation of mediocre or low quality content – sure, the average quality of online content will fall as more ‘amateur’ content is shared, but just as everyone should have a right to vote, everyone has a right to speak/contribute, readers can self-select the better content (with aids of crowd-sourcing / curation by other readers, and search tools), and contribution will eventually lead to improvement and learning.

For more critical appraisal of Clay’s views, I recommend reading the excellent Bloomberg Business Week article, written by Paul M. Barrett, an assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek.  I think those arguments are very well written, and worth taking on board, however I think it would be a shame if they prevented at least an attempt to capitalize from the “cognitive surplus” that Clay talks about.  I also find it slightly surprising that Bloomberg Businessweek prefers to favor old media over new media, having just launched an iPad version, and having comments boxes below the same article, for readers to contribute their own views (on the other hand, it’s also good news that such a magazine doesn’t have one-sided perspective!).


I look forward to reading Clay’s views in his book, and will share my thoughts on those in the comments below, once I’ve done so.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting debate (especially in the comments) on Jeff Jarvis’ blog, BuzzMachine, between Jeff Jarvis and Farhad Manjoo (author of a review in the New York Times of Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus) here – “Bad Things Could Happen”:

  2. […] time (it even refers to ‘re-building’ Wikipedia [in different languages]) (see “Thoughts on Clay Shirky’s concept of “Cognitive surplus”“, in which Shirky compares the time it take to build Wikipedia versus the time spent by […]

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