Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age - Clay Shirky
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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age - Clay Shirky
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Brief Summary:
The author of the breakout hit, Here Comes Everybody, reveals how new technology is changing us from consumers to collaborators, unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world.

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Self-Help; Creativity

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  • The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evegeny Morozov
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nichlas Carr

Notes and Excerpts from Book:

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky reveals how new technologies are changing from customers to collaborators and unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world. Clay is also the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization.

When we talk about the industrialized world, many of the institutions actually rose in response to the social climate created by industrialization. Mutual aid societies provided shared management of risks outside the traditional ties of kin and church. These changes came about only when civic density stopped being treated as a crisis and began being treated as a simple fact or even an opportunity.

In our modern civilization, television has absorbed the lion’s share of the free time available to the citizens of the developed world. Free time is the amount of unstructured time cumulatively available to the educated population. Free time bloomed because the educated population itself bloomed and because that population was living longer while working less. This adds up to billions of collective free hours per year.

So what did we do with all that time? Mostly we watched TV—an average of twenty hours a week worldwide. In 1960 the world watched fifty thousand hours of TV and they will watch another thirty thousand before they die. Our three most common activities are work, sleep and watching TV.

Considerable evidence exists that watching too much TV is an actual source of unhappiness. Unhappy people watch considerably more TV than happy people. Spending many hours watching TV increases marital difficulties and raises anxiety. Humans are social creatures. Television has come to displace other diversions such as socializing and sleep. The people we see on television constitute only imaginary friends.

Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of Cognitive Surplus. That surplus would represent something like one million hours of human thought. How much is this when compared to television? Americans watch two hundred billion hours of TV every year. That represents completing about two thousand Wikipedia projects with our annual free time. We spend 100 million hours every weekend just watching commercials.

One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset to be used for large communally-created projects, rather than individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.

A service called Ushahidi was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya in December 2007. Ushahidi’s creator posted things on her blog and floated the idea of a software program which attracted the attention of two programmers. The three got on a conference call and within three days the first version was created. A handful of people, working with cheap tools and little time or money to spare, managed to generate enough collective goodwill for thecommunity to create a resource that no one could have imagined even five years ago.

People want to do something to make the world a better place and will help when they are invited to. Having access to cheap flexible tools removes many of the barriers to try new things. Once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in the way that people care about, others can replicate your technique over and over around the world.

What if we have also been trying to make ourselves feel connected, engaged, or just less lonely? What if we have always wanted to produce as well as consume but no one offered us that opportunity? If you offer people the opportunity to produce some of the share, they will sometimes take you up on it.

The world’s Cognitive Surplus is so large that small changes can have huge ramifications in the aggregate. People must be able to donate their free time to collective efforts and produce Cognitive Surplus instead of making just a bunch of tiny disconnected individual efforts. In 2010 the global inter-connective population will cross two billion people. This leads to the concept of “pizza by the slice.” Pizza by the slice assumes that with a large enough crowd unpredictable events become predictable. Once the certainty of demand is divorced from the individual customers and remanded to the aggregate, a whole new class of activity becomes possible.

The likelihood of an offense is the probability of it happening times the frequency with which it may happen. This is accessibility and permanence. Accessibility means that a number of others can read what a given person writes and permanence refers to the longevity of a given piece of writing. Once we see the problem of commuting as a matter of coordination we can think of aggregate solutions rather than just an individual one. In this context, one car pulling a number of cars on the road becomes an opportunity because each additional car is an additional chance that someone will be going your way.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type they already had printing presses, but they had to cast full pages of text. Gutenberg realized that if you made the casting of individual letters instead of full pages, you could arrange them into any words you liked. Type could be moved around to make new pages. A scribe produced a single copy of a five hundred page book for thirty florins, while the Venetian press could print three hundred copies of the same book for the same price. That’s a three hundred to one improvement. Wherever you have Gutenberg economics you are going to have 15th Century Risk Management as well, where the producers have to decide what’s good before showing it to the audience. Today, a button marked “Publish” means that now everybody can produce communications at lower cost. Abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off. Diversity expands the range of the possible and the best work becomes better than what went before.

Media is the connective tissue of society. All these things used to be separated into public media v. personal media; now the two modes are fused. We move from public to private and back again in ways that no one thought possible.

Some people ask why more folks are working for free. They call it digital sharecropping, where the platform owners keep the money and the creators of the content don’t. But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they are really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be active sharing rather than production? What if their labors are labors of love? The harnessing of our Cognitive Surplus allows people to increasingly generate new public and social ways relative to their old status of consumers. The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative.

If free time was all that was necessary, the current changes would have occurred half a century ago. Now we have the tools at our disposal under the new opportunities they provide. Intrinsic motivations are those in which the activity itself is thereward. In real word situations where money was offered as a reward for volunteering, it depressed the number of hours of labor the average volunteer contributed. There are two personal motivators:

(1) The desire to be autonomous, to determine what we do and how we do it, and
(2) The desire to be competent, to be good at what we do.

Benkler, a legal scholar at Harvard, wrote a paper called “Commons-Based Peer Production& Virtue” about systems that rely on voluntary contributions to operate. It says there are two types of social motivation, one around connectedness or membership and the other around sharing and generosity. Social motivations reinforce the person alone. New communication networks encourage membership and sharing, and they provide support for autonomy and competence. There are two messages: “I did it.” and “We did it.”

The word amateur comes from the Latin word Amara, meaning “to love.” The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation to be an “amateurist,” to do something for the love of it. Keeping a large group focused can be a full-time job. Organizing groups into effective clusters with certain skills requires professional management. Professional managers in turn require salaries. There is a huge step between the bunch of people that really care about some issue and an organizational of people who really care about that issue and work together to do something about it.

The hurdle of large skill coordination is largely separating amateurs from professionals.We’re seeing a strange new hybrid of large public amateur groups. It’s entirely possible to have an amateur global organization. Social media drives discovery cost through the floor; web access allows you to find other people who like building model trains rather than model cars. Why are people behaving that way? Is their behavior rewarding a desire for autonomy and for competence? Is it rewarding the society that is connected or generous?

People with intrinsic motivations are strong enough that they gravitate toward experiences that reward them. All of us have intrinsic motivations, desires to do things because we enjoy them in and of themselves. The Cognitive Surplus is not simply training for the hours of free time spread across two billion connected individuals; rather, it’s communal. When a surprising new thing happens, instead of asking why this is new we can ask why this is a surprise.

Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because old beliefs about human nature were so lousy. Humans aren’t rational economic actors. The question of why all these people are working for free presupposes a theory of human action based mainly on personal and financial motivation. The sensible reasons say do things just for money, so doing things for free requires a special explanation.Once you stop asking why people do these things for free and start asking why they are doing them at all allows the whole range of intrinsic motivation to become part of the explanation.

A tool’s capabilities don’t completely determine its ultimate function. Users can press the tools into service in ways the designers never imagined. In Cooperative Circles, Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, Michael Farrell details how groups of friends and collaborators both improve the ideas of a group and spread them. Information cannot be made globally available in an unlimited number of perfect copies of zero marginal cost. Every mode of communication where one had to rely on market pricing can now have an alternative that relies on open sharing. Many coordination hurdles that require professional managers to direct paid workers can now have an alternative that relies on masterly distributed cooperation among amateurs. Social production becomes people you don’t know making your life better for free.

The web surfer Apache, which is an open source project, is composed of millions of small additions and pixels adding up to continuous positive change. When we want something to happen that’s more complex than one person can accomplish alone,we need a group to do it. Social production is the creation of value by group members using price, signal, or store managerial oversight to coordinate participant’s efforts.

This is Commons-Based Peer Production created by people operating with peers without a managerial hierarchy. We can now have this form of social production as a way to take on such tasks. We can link our aggregate free time to tasks we find interesting, important or urgent using media that now provides opportunities for this kind of production. This increase in our ability to create things together,to pour free time and particular talents into something useful, is one of the great new opportunities of the age that changes the behaviors of the people who take advantage of it.

Another method is Collaborative Spirals. There were three men in Pakistan who decided to mobilize people in the streets to pick up garbage. They had a few recruits and they showed up on the streets on Sundays gathering trash from a public market. At first, people just observed. But the responsible citizens kept returning and urging locals to joint hem. This was positive deviance. Positive devianc eoccurs when people behave better than the norm even when faced with limitations or challenges. We wish to nurture in everyone a community spirit.

Social networks spread all kinds of behaviors. The Internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities at lower cost than ever before and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history. The driving force is the ability of loosely coordinated groups with a shared culture to perform tasks more effectively than individuals and more effectively than markets and more effectively than governments using managerial direction. Once any field of endeavor requires something like a recipe, a set of instructions for an activity separable from the activity itself, it can circulate much more effectively among the people who can understand it. The members need to understand each other well in order to share work together well.

These are called Communities of Practice in which small highly involved groups of people co-create something valuable for much larger groups of people to take advantage of. allows patients with similar chronic health conditions to share information and offer support. There are about fifty thousand people at this point. We can alter massive aggregations of small contributions into things of lasting value. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft announced that sharing production of software is communism. Robert McHenry, the former editor and chief of Encyclical of Britannica, likened Wikipedia to a public restroom. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, compared bloggers to monkeys.

Groups have to balance effectiveness at the group level with satisfaction at the individual level. The down side of this is tending to the emotional life of groups which can get so swamped they lose the ability to get anything done. A group can become more concerned with satisfying its members than with achieving its goals. For most groups, the primary threat is the risk of falling into emotionally satisfying but ineffective behavior. Shirky called groups that do this “basic groups,” since they fall into their basest desires. Any group trying to create real volume must monitor itself to ensure it is not losing sight of the entire purpose or what Shirky called the “sophisticated goal.” By contrast, groups that have pursued their goals in sophisticated work groups try to keep themselves from sliding into satisfying but ineffective emotion. They internalize the standards of the group. Personal values, the kind of value we received from being active instead of passive, are creative instead of confronting.

There are four central points to the spectrum. One is personal sharing among uncoordinated individuals; another is communal sharing among collaborators such as; another is public sharing to create a public resource such as the Apache software project; and finally civic sharing is when a group is actively trying to transform the society. The spectrum from personal to communal to public to civic creates great potential value.

Along with shared Cognitive Surplus, we can create an invisible university. Many individual colleges are doing hard work. The groups must be self-governing and submit to the constraints that help them ignore more distracting and entertaining material and stay focused instead on some sophisticated task.Getting an invisible university means mastering the art of creating groups that commit themselves to working together outside existing market and managerial structures in order to create opportunities for plans of skill sharing. This work is not easy and it never goes smoothly. Groups need to acquire a culture that rewards members for doing that hard work. It takes this kind of group effort to get what we need, not just what we want, and understanding how to create and maintain it is one of the great challenges of our era.

The fusing of means, motive and opportunity creates our Cognitive Surplus out of the raw material of accumulated free time. The real change comes from our awareness that the surplus creates unprecedented opportunity. The low cost of experimentation allows a huge base of potential users to meet someone with an idea that would normally require dozens or thousands of participants. They can now try it at remarkably low cost without a need to ask anyone for permission first. All this has happened already. What has not yet happened is seeing what benefit will eventually emerge from our ability to treat the world’s Cognitive Surplus as an assured cumulative resource. We need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical thinking.

The essential source of value right now is coming more from master strategy than from broad experimentation because no one has a complete grasp (or even a very good one) of what the next great idea will look like. Start small, ask why. Why would users care about this particular opportunity given all the other things they could be doing with their time? Behavior follows opportunity; behavior is motivation that has been filtered through opportunity. We have to give people opportunities they can understand and care about, and this is hard because you can’t just present them with a task that fits their capabilities. We have to give users a specific opportunity that rewards their intrinsic motivations, preferably both personal ones and social ones.

It’s hard to operate between the intimate score of dozens and the public score of thousands.The key is to first recruit dozens of users, people who know the right culture or norm—with the caveat that what makes the set of norms right differs fromplace to place. Whatever culture holds by the time you get to a hundred usershas the good chance of remaining in force when you get to a thousand or million. In large systems, a core group and a peripheral one emerge. The larger the system, the larger is the difference and involvement between the core and the peripheral members. Cater to the involvement of different users by making the size of the smallest possible contribution very small and by making the threshold of that change small as well.

Wikipedia manages contributions across an enormous range of participation. The imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again. The faster you learn, the sooner you will be able to adapt. Try everything and try anything. The greatest single predictor of how much value we get out of our Cognitive Surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment.

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