Business, Media, Multimedia

Clay Shirky and humanity’s cognitive surplus

By Andy Rice 21 July 2010

Ever since we stopped watching so much television, mankind has a trillion extra hours a year and the tools to change the world at its disposal. Now all we need is commensurate lashings of goodwill and technologies that motivate creative collaboration.

How did people create Wikipedia, YouTube, and Ushahidi, and, on a less-profound scale, Lolcats? For Clay Shirky, the answer arrived as an epiphany after a television producer said something that seriously pissed him off.

Shirky was being interviewed by said TV producer to ascertain whether he was good enough for  camera fodder. He started telling the producer about the issue of Pluto and Wikipedia. A couple of years ago Pluto was declared no longer a planet, but a dwarf planet or a “plutoid” and this created manic editing, debate and conflict in the Wikipedia community.

One of the world’s top thinkers on human behaviour in social networks, Shirky expected Ms TV Producer to initiate a conversation thread on social construction or authority. Instead she shook her head and said: “Where do people find the time?” Shirky snapped and retorted angrily: “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

And there it was – cognitive surplus – the concept that would become the thesis that would follow Shirky’s breakthrough hit, “Here Comes Everybody”.

“Cognitive surplus is important because it is a resource we have in our little corner of the 21st century that we didn’t have in the 20th century,” said Shirky speaking to The Daily Maverick from New York, where he is adjunct professor at New York University and teaches courses on the interrelationships of social and technological networks and how they shape culture and each other. “The phrase is my attempt to answer the question: ‘What is Wikipedia made of, what is YouTube made of and what is Ushahidi made of?’.”

Watch: Clay Shirky’s TED talk on how cognitive surplus will change the world:

If you haven’t heard of Clay Shirky before, may we politely ask what planet you’ve been on? (Perhaps Pluto, the dwarf planet?) A best-selling author, prolific writer, educator and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, Shirky is one of the top thinkers on Open Source, social networks, collaboration tools and collaborative filtering. Editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson cited Shirky in “The Long Tail” as “a prominent thinker on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies”.

Shirky’s latest book is called “Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity In A Connected Age”. In short, cognitive surplus is humanity’s talent and free time, some trillion hours a year according to Shirky, which could be channelled into projects via a medium that enables the collaboration and the aggregation of time and talent. If you want to get your head around how much time a trillion hours is, think of this. Shirky estimates that people in the US watch about 200 billion hours of television a year. If you convert this to productive digital time, Shirky says its equivalent to about 2,000 Wikipedia-type projects a year.

Watch: Clay Shirky’s TED talk on how cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history:

We’ve got this time because, as Shirky would say, we’ve woken up from a collective sitcom bender and now have the tools to collaborate and create. But can we harness all that raw potential for the collective good? “What you can do is influence it, what you can’t do is control it,” says Shirky. He refers to Harvard Internet scholar Yochai Benkler who said lucid coupled systems require motivated actors. “What he means is that systems where the parts are not tightly reined – where you don’t have an employee working for you that you can boss around – (ones that) require people who want to participate.”

To Shirky this is a design challenge that was smartly answered by Ushahidi, which turned the convention of “California created technology that’s adopted by the world” on its head. Ushahidi was created on the fly in Kenya and took just three years to become a global phenomenon. 

“Ory Okolloh, David Kobia and Eric Hersman launched Ushahidi in 72 hours, mostly because the technology itself isn’t the big design challenge. The bits and pieces that underpin Ushahidi were lying around and basically there for everyone who wanted them. The design challenge Ushahidi took on was creating the opportunity to participate in a civic way that seems worthwhile. That change was enough to get this incredible onrush of participation.”

Why did people who were ostensibly so addicted to television get off the couch and collaborate for the civic good? Shirky said one of the great coincidences of the current age is that at the same time as we are seeing systems designed around a cognitive surplus, we are also getting an enormous amount of social science explaining how and why people will act for internal rewards. Research shows us now that rewards that either satisfy us or make us happy, rather than overt material rewards like a raise or promotion, are more motivational.

“In many cases when we see these surprising new behaviours like people building Ushahidi, or contributing to projects like CouchSurfing or PickupPal, the surprise is probably because our old expectations of human behaviour were so lousy. We are surprised to see people doing social things, we are surprised to see people being nice to each other, we are surprised to see people being generous with each other because in the 20th century we told ourselves the story that we were happy being couch potatoes and office drones. But that has turned out not to be true.”

The fact that Ushahidi was developed in Kenya and spread worldwide is a big deal according to Shirky, and could be predictive of where other significant cognitive surplus technologies will come from. “When the design challenge moves from a handful of engineers, from a handful of cities that are capable of understanding a technical challenge, to people who know how to design an interesting opportunity that makes things happen and this group is much more widely distributed… that I think is going to be a big deal. What Ushahidi does is to takes the tacit knowledge available in the population – in Kenya everybody knew where the violence was but nobody could see it all in one place – and shows the individual members of that population what the population as a whole knows. That surfacing of tacit knowledge about the society we live in a way that we can see and react to, that is a big deal.”

Watch: Clay Shirky talking at Authors@Google:

This is the kind of technology that excites Shirky because it involves mobiles – a technology he believes is transformative – and designs for the lowest hardware denominator which promote inclusion. “I like the smart phone as much as the next guy, but in the social market increasing the number of people that are connected has a bigger effect on the environment than increasing the way the most advanced users are connected, or users with the most advanced technology hardware are connected. I think a lot of the surprises are going to come from outside of the US because our mobile phone infrastructure is so abysmal, and because we are in a world where the idea is that the smart phone is THE design platform. There is a lot to do on smart phones, but the big freak outs are going to come from places where a large number of people with commodity hardware are connected, rather than a place where there is a small number of advanced hardware connected,” said Shirky.

Which means the greatest technological opportunity for mobile invention, according to Shirky, is right here. Right now. In Africa. Waiting for the right collaborators to discover and take it to the world.

Clay Shirky will speak at the Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg, 12-13 August.

By Mandy de Waal

Read more: The New York Observer, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail. Follow Clay Shirky on Twitter.



Zondo Commission will be long and thorough – will it outlast President Ramaphosa?

By Ferial Haffajee

"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas