Obscured by Crowds: Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

In The Young & The Digital (Beacon, 2009), Craig Watkins points out an overlooked irony in our switch from television screens to computer screens: We gather together around the former to watch passively, while we individually engage with the latter to actively connect with each other. This insight forms the core of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010). Shirky argues that the web has finally joined us in a prodigious version of McLuhan’s “global village” or Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere,” wherein everyone online merges into one productive, creative, cooperative, collective consciousness. If that seems a little extreme, so are many of Shirky’s claims. The “cognitive surplus” marks the end of the individual literary mind and the emergence of the Borg-like clouds and crowds of Web 2.0.

Okay, not exactly, but he does argue for the potential of the cognitive collective. So, Wot’s… Uh, the deal?

Is Clay Shirky the new Seth Godin? I’d yet to read anything written by him that didn’t echo things I’d read David Weinberger or Howard Rheingold (or Marshall McLuhan, of course), and I hoped Cognitive Surplus would finally break the streak. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. As Shirky put it in his previous book, Here Comes Everybody (Penguin, 2008), “society doesn’t change when people adopt new tools; it changes when people adopt new behaviors.” This time around he argues that we adopt new behaviors when provided with new opportunities, which, by my estimate, are provided by new tools — especially online.

Steve Jobs once said that the computer and the television would never converge because we choose one when we want to engage and the other when we want to turn off. The problem with Shirky’s claims is that he never mentions this disparity of desire. A large percentage of people, given the opportunity or not, do not want to post things online, create a Facebook profile, or any of a number of other web-enabled sharing activities. For example, I do not like baseball. I don’t like watching it, much less playing it. If all of the sudden baseballs, gloves, and bats were free, and every home were equipped with a baseball diamond, my desire to play baseball would not increase. Most people do not want to comment on blog posts, video clips, or news stories, much less create their own, regardless of the tools or opportunities made available to them. Cognitive surplus or not, its potential is just that without the collective desire to put it into action.

Shirky’s incessant lolcat bashing and his insistence that we care more about “public and civic value” instead comes off as “net” elitism at its worse. The wisdom of crowds, in James Surowieki’s phrase, doesn’t necessarily lead to the greater good, whatever that is. You can’t argue for bringing brains together and then expect them to “do right.” Are lolcats stupid? Probably, but they’re certainly not ushering in the end of Western civilization. It’s still less popular to be smart than it is to be a smartass, but that’s not the end of the world, online or off-. The crowd is as wise as the crowd does. Glorifying it as such, as Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf, 2010), is just plain wrong-headed.

The last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse,” is where Shirky shines though. [Although its namesake echoes a story by Jaron Lanier from a 1998 Wired article about children being smarter and expecting more from technology. Lanier wrote, “My favorite anecdote concerns a three-year-old girl who complained that the TV was broken because all she could do was change channels.” Shirky’s version involves a four-year-old girl digging in the cables behind a TV, “looking for the mouse.”] His ability to condense vast swaths of knowledge into a set of tactics for new media development in this last chapter is stunning compared to the previous 180 pages. Perhaps he is the new Seth Godin afterall.


Lanier, J. (1998, January). “Taking Stock.” Wired, 6.01.

Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin.

Surowieki, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor.

Watkins, S. C. (2009). The Young & The Digital. New York: Beacon.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.