Join the global village

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Clay Shirky
Allen Lane; £20

BERTIE AHERN worried about Robert Puttnam’s book Bowling Alone. He worried that we were lost and bewildered on the information highway.

Harvard professor Puttnam observed that social trends were leading to an increasingly disconnected and passive consumer, who went to the bowling alley alone, as he was no longer a social creature.

Ahern needn’t have let such dark thoughts distract; in Cognitve Surplus, a striking and accessible book, Clay Shirky asserts that our collective future is rich and ripe, full of new forms of collaboration.

The next phase of our cultural development, already underway, will be marked by the use of the “cognitive surplus,” Shirky’s phrase for the liberated, organisational and cultural potential that has become available for use on a global scale due to the evolution of communications technology.

In a nutshell: we now all have the ability to create, shape and consume culture, the time to do it in, and the tools to share it. The internet has provided.

No longer will we be defined by community, but by communities of interest. Unconstrained by geography, knowledge once thought esoteric will be shared, debated and improved in the sunlight.

Shirky says that this is not a new development, but a restatement of desires that were deep within us, when our horizons were solely the village. This is not created by technology, but merely facilitated by it.

Shirky provides the counterpoint to the wasteland that so captivated Ahern; while Shirky concedes there may be generations lost to TV — and that TV viewing isn’t going anywhere, just right now — there is also a clearly demonstrable blooming of new forms of expression that were previously unimaginable. Thus, there is hope.

His examples are US-centric, but there are plenty of local ones; from, which is a volunteer effort to record in a user-friendly and useful manner the activities of our Dáil, to collaborative coverage of news events through photojournalism on, to the vast ongoing conversations taking place on or, on topics sacred and profane. This is global; Ireland as much as anywhere.

The sudden realisation that passive consumption is now not the only way to engage is gob-smacking: that there are now nearly two billion minds in gear, and that the barriers to becoming an active contributor on the new, two-way tools are now so low as to be almost negligible. Jay Rosen, journalism futurist, captures the chasm in the phrase “the people formerly known as the audience”; Shirky is also faculty at the interactive telecommunications program at NYU, and their respective work complements each other.

This participatory ethic — many-to-many conversations in a world used to one-to-many — is alien to some; as radical a departure from social norms as the ‘free love’ ethos was to the straight-laced in its time.

Shirky also deals with the three, main criticisms levelled at this internet of ideas; he says complex, group and individual motivations keep things honest — a fake grassroots movement is impossible to sustain.

Shirky references the “war on filesharing” as one of the tragedies of this change; as with Lawrence Lessig, in his recent Remix, he cites this as one of the points marking the fracture between the old and the new. The young are not thieves, but do share.

He also deals with the torrent of “junk” culture that the internet has facilitated by referencing concerns at the time of the introduction of the printing press that it, too, would debase appreciation of the great works. In this, the book counterpoints Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.

To the tribes of the internet, the circle of friends on Facebook, none of this is novel. The sharing and creativity aspects are old hat to digital natives; it is solely those embedded in the old culture that have the relative difficulty with the transition.

Shirky paints it as an exciting time, which will mark the obsolescence of one set of gatekeepers, who controlled information flows and public discourse, and their replacement with something new; a blooming of creativity and generosity in new ways that will transform the global village from a metaphor about distance to an interconnectedness in every form of human pursuit — economic or otherwise — on a scale previously unimaginable.

Shirky — also author of an excellent book on social media, Here Comes Everybody — does not have to deal with the consequences of the displacement that this future will hold. His is the future in aggregate; on the whole, society will be a more fulfilled place. The agony of transformation, of displacement of the buggy whip makers with the creation of the automobile, is a footnote, a curiosity.

This, to be honest, is gut-wrenchingly scary, if one works in one of the industries being taken apart by this; but exciting if one believes — Shirky does not say so, but the implication is clear — that this may be the precursor to a new Renaissance.

That new forms of social organisation, inclusion and attitude will appear, which will connect more people than ever before.

Therefore, the policymakers that were so enamoured of Bowling Alone will have to wrestle with a problem that is different to the one that they thought they had.

Instead of engaging with a population that is passive, they may find themselves confronted with a public that is expert, creative and engaged. They can attempt to preserve and retain the old power structures and deny this trend exists, or they can, and should, facilitate this type of discourse through data-sharing and transparent decision-making; bringing all this grey matter to bear on the issues we share.

Should they choose the latter path, the public realm will be all the richer for it. In the new world, openness and sharing will be prized more than optics.

Ahern was looking in the wrong place for inspiration. He should have simply asked us all, not gone alone.


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