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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

Book Review / Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Book Review / Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky - thumbnail
In 2009, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations made a splash with its claim that digital media had revolutionized the way social groups organize. Whereas that book centered on the question, What in the world happened?, Shirky's new book—Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age—follows up with the question, Well, now what do we do?

Means, Motive, and Opportunity

Shirky estimates that the world's educated population boasts a cumulative one trillion hours of free time each year. This cognitive surplus has been available since the early 20th century, when the 40-hour work week became standard in the industrialized world. But now, digital technologies have enabled the average person to use that free time not only to consume information, but also to create and share it.
Shirky's examples illustrate what technology means for the future of a globalized society. Social media, he asserts, has virtually limitless potential to change the world for the better. In fact, it is already doing so.
A Facebook group in Mangalore, India, successfully organized public condemnation of the Hindu fundamentalist sect Sri Ram Sene's violent repression of women.
People with medical disorders and diseases meet online to share health advice and give researchers access to unprecedented amounts of cumulative data.
Teenage Josh Groban fans raise millions of dollars online for charity.
If enough people have the means, motive, and opportunity, they can accomplish amazing things together that would be nearly impossible to take on alone. However, creating and sustaining a community that not only is personally beneficial but also improves society as a whole is a significant challenge.
Although Shirky doesn't explicitly apply his ideas to education, he describes his struggles to relate to his students as a professor at New York University:I now have to teach the times of my own youth as ancient history. Seemingly stable parts of the world I grew up in had vanished before many of my students turned 15, while innovations I saw take hold with adult eyes occurred when they were in grade school. … [My students] have never lived in an environment where they weren't able to speak in public, and it's hard for them to imagine how different that environment was, compared with the participatory behaviors they take for granted today. (pp. 60, 62)
It is Shirky's perspective as a 40-something professor who constantly interacts with 25-year-olds that makes his writing so accessible, no matter the audience. In fact, Shirky attempts to break down what he considers to be fictional generational barriers: "Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do" (p. 121). Shirky gently encourages us to remember that given the opportunity, people will generally embrace the technology that works for them, whether they are 8 or 80 years old.

Why You Should Read This Book

Anyone who is intrigued, nervous, or just plain curious about social media will enjoy Shirky's book as he delves beneath the application-crazy, gizmototing, overwhelming surface of the tech world to plumb the foundation of human motivation, why we do what we do—and why we generally prefer that it involves an Internet connection. Shirky himself says it best:The world's people, and the connections among us, provide the raw material for cognitive surplus. The technology will continue to improve, the population will continue to grow, but change in the direction of more participation has already happened. … The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous; what we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation, and sharing. (p. 212)
Because educators play a unique role in imagining and creating an environment that rewards students for creativity, participation, and sharing, this book is a must-read for anyone in education. Shirky's philosophy and ideas are widely applicable as a foundation for 21st century learning. Means, motive, and opportunity are paramount not only to the success of an online community, but to that of any community: country, province, state, city, school district, or classroom. People don't change, but opportunities do, and Shirky reminds us that we now have access to the greatest opportunity of all: to make the world a better place.

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