This week for my Technology, Culture and Learning Class, we read the book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” by Clay Shirky. When I first read the title I had to really think about what Shirky meant by “Cognitive Surplus.” Basically, what my understanding of this term is the excess amount of free time we have and how we use it. Shirky discusses several examples of what we do with our cognitive surplus, but one of his main focuses is the amount of time people spend watching TV, which he feels could be used for other purposes.
In the first chapter entitled Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus Shirky discusses a fascinating history of the “gin craze” that began in London around the 1720’s. “The Gin Craze was a real event-gin consumption rose dramatically in the early 1700’s even as consumptions of beer and wine remained flat”
People began moving into the city of London from the countryside seeking work due to the industrialization of society. There were major changes in society due to this growth in populations, “with predictable effects on living conditions and public health, and crime of all sorts was on the rise. Especially upsetting was that women of London had taken to drinking gin, often gathering in mixed-sex gin halls, proof positive of its corrosive effects on social norms”
(Shirky 2). Due to this issues there were several laws passed in order to prohibit the consumptions of gin. Although parliament would pass law after law trying to prohibit gin, there were always ways around these newly passed laws. One such example of circumventing the law was when, “Parliament outlawed flavored spirits; so distillers stopped adding juniper berries to the liquor” (Shirky 3). According to Shirkey, it wasn’t the laws that eventually decreased the consumption of gin and the issues that accompanied it, but the changes made due the industrialization and creation of the modern city.
Certainly, all our societal issues were not resolved with the decrease of gin consumption. We still encounter change in population trends such as urban growth, and increased suburban density, and an increase in educational aspirations. According to Shirky we just transitioned into a new addiction, “During this transition, what has been our gin, the critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another?”
(Shirky 4). It was one I mentioned in the first paragraph, television.
Although I thought the book was very interesting, there were some parts I felt dragged on a bit too much. In Chapter 3 “Means”, Shirky’s description on how the Grobanites (hard-core fans of Josh Groban) started their own charity organization on behalf of Josh Groban, was interesting at first but I felt he spent way too much time on this example. I understand that his point was to show how the internet allows you to connect, produce and contribute. However, have we not always been able to connect, produce and contribute without the internet? People organized and influenced society in the past, more than likely through political groups, churches, schools and other community organizations. So, without modern technology what did our society do before the internet? One could argue that it took more time and energy to get organize, so did people have more cognitive surplus then we do today? Reading this chapter, just made me think and ask a lot of questions.
I did find Edward Deci’s 1970 study on the soma puzzle where participants were instructed to solve a puzzle and then left alone for eights of free time interesting. It showed what can motivate people and what happens when take away that motivation. In Deci’s first experiment he studied participants during their free time to see they continued to work on solving the puzzle, he found they continued to work on puzzle for half of their free time. In the second experiment he offered half the group money to solve the puzzle and again during their free time he observed that those participants that were offered money worked on the puzzle longer than those who were not offered money. This is not surprising; I think we all know that money is a great motivator when it comes to accomplishing tasks. In his final experiment Deci, did reverted to his initial experiment and did not offer anyone money to complete the puzzle. What he found was that those that were offered money in second experiment spent less time on the puzzle during their free time. This reminded me of the day care experiment mentioned in Chapter 5 entitled Culture. Some of the day care centers implemented a fine to the parents who were late in picking up their children. The study showed a dramatic increase in the number of parents who were late in picking up their children. In essence because these parents were paying a fine, they felt it was alright not to follow the 4:00 pm pick up time. They felt that the fine was enough punishment for them not to follow the rules. However, once the fine was removed the numbers did not decrease, they remained the same.
Shirky’s most interesting chapter is the final chapter entitled “Looking for the Mouse,” where he offers his observations and provides lessons on how we can harness our cognitive surplus. The three main categories are Start, Growing and Adapting. In the first category start, Shirky states, “You can never get complex social interactions right first crack out of the box, but you can get them wrong. The key to starting well is to understand how the initial launch of social media is special.”
(Shirky 193-194). So how do you start? You start small, ask why, behavior follows opportunity and default to social.
Growing which is the second category Shirky feels it’s “one of the great challenges of such systems, especially in their early days, is to manage the dynamics of growth.”
(Shirky 197). The four sub-categories consist of A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand; People differ, more people differ more; intimacy doesn’t scale; and support a supportive culture.
In regards to the final category adapting Shirky says, “If successful uses of cognitive surplus required designers to get it right the first time, you be able to count the successes on the fingers of one hand. Instead, the imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.”
(Shirky 203). The four sub-categories are the faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; success causes more problems than failure; clarity is violence; try anything, try everything.
This book showed how beneficial the internet can be when used in an informative and entertainment manner. For example when women were attacked by a group of men from the Sri Ram Sene, video of these brutal attacks were uploaded on the internet and the group said they would commit future attacks a group of women started a facebook page of support for each other. The internet can be a useful tool and can provide an opportunity for those who otherwise, may not be heard.
Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: The Peguin Press, 2010.