Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Shirky opens up an intellectual space for his book with several crucial, almost obvious, yet often overlooked claims:
1. the current generation of young people are the first generation watching *less* TV than the previous generation
2. this extra time or cognitive surplus is often dedicated to production rather than pure consumption
3. participatory culture is a call back to the traditional past
From this crafted space he soundly argues that we should stop listening to those people lamenting the rise of the amateur--look at all the crap on Youtube, all the stupid indulgent writing on blogs, the quippy ill-formed sentences on FB and Twitter. And on this point I agree. Historically we have always been nervous about any new technology which allows mere commoners, and especially illiterate youth, to produce content.
Let the crap flood the bandwidth because the young producers are learning about design (see Ze Frank's "I know me some ugly myspace" contest/video commentary) and many other frameworks historically cordoned off for official producers of media content. This is a no-brainer for good teachers--for people to learn they must be given opportunities to practice, fail, make crap. Secondly, let it flow because one out of 100,000 (or whatever) of these productions and social connectors will be amazing, a game-changer. He sites many examples such as Ushahidi (used to track ethnic violence in Kenya) or the chromosome project and many more. My oldest son told me about Ouya, a video game platform, which allows users to create their own video games starting with the open source platform. Withing a few days my son went from a video game consumer to a producer.
To me his most important argument is that when we focus on technology we focus too much on the amazing technology itself rather than how these new technologies connect and create community. Shirkey convincingly argues that if you allow for intrinsic motivation, which he defines as an environment that allows for and promotes autonomy and competency, they will come--thousands upon thousands of users willing to dedicate time to creating and building the community.
Overall Shirkey has a more optimistic view of all this--while I agree with his overall analysis, the cynic in me says that most, if not all of these self-generating communities, will be co-opted by capitalism, purchased, converted to hierarchies and rule-based organizations. I hope I'm wrong. But I absolutely disagree with Shirkey's crystal clear distinction between consumption and production.
At one point he says that all TV watching is less creative and generous than any sort of blogging because bloggers, of course, produce something and TV watchers simply absorb. He seems to discount the many theoretical models which have illustrated active consumption such as Reader Response Theory and many others coming out of Cultural Studies.
While some TV watching may be mindless so is some blogging; watching TV, for example, can be active and engaging without an auxiliary website for fans to argue and produce their own episodes. A good old family discussion, well-placed pause to discuss a show, and the move to connect the current show to a book on the shelf demonstrate as much intrinsic motivation, autonomy and competency as any new fangled social media group. Surely it is small but these discussions can spread like viruses through simpler means--a conversation at work or school the next day. So, yes, Shirkey offers an important push back to the critiques of amateur online culture, but there's no need to overstate or discount slower old-school means of engaging the media.
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