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on 25 November 2010
I read Here Comes Everybody, read the Amazon crits and looked forward to Cognitive Surplus which I've just read. This is a review and comment on this second book.
Here Comes Everybody was a bit heavy going, but set up the fact that Prof S has an understanding of how our society is changing, particularly the way in which the internet has enabled Wikipedia footsoldiers (shorthand for the reasonably educated silent majority) to make a more useful contribution to society than merely editing our international free encyclopaedia.

That is what they are doing and that, I believe, is the essential message of Cognitive Surplus: we have brainpower to spare and we want to make our world a better place. Clay Shirky describes in great detail what is happening out there. There are some wonderful (my choice of adjective) developments as vested interests, record companies, cabals, software and hardware moguls, restrictive groups (include any authoritarian church you care to mention) and monopolies are forced to bow to the will of the Majority, the people who throughout history have had to accept the will of the various oligarchies that control them.

Things are still like that, but in Shirky's neck of the woods and mine, the winds of change are running fast. I'd love to tell you about how in Britain right now (November 2010) TV audiences have discovered they have the power to disrupt the voting systems that are supposed to deliver safe and satisfying public participation TV programmes. This is really grist to Clay Shirky's mill and maybe he'll tell us what this is all about in his next book. Keep writing, sir.
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on 27 March 2012
Like the equally excellent "Here Comes Everybody" (HCE) by the same author, this is about social media. In HCE he concentrated on how social media is empowering people in ways that are both challenging to corporate and government power, and liberating the forward thinking companies who are ready and able to embrace this.

Cognitive Surplus picks up from where HCE left off, and discusses how we can use the power to "do good" that has been released due to have more leisure time in modern culture. Just like social media has empowered people to challenge centralised authority (HCE) so it has freed us to be more effective in our altruism. The sub title says it all "creativity and generosity in a connected age".

The book surveys the enabling factors (means, motive and opportunity), showing how social media powerfully adds in each of these areas, and also looks at culture, community and individualism (and the tensions therein). Finally Shirky deals with how this has come to pervade modern life and culture and how it's changing us.

Perhaps one omission is that he doesn't deal very much with the negative side - social media can be an equally pwerful tool in the hands of those less altruistic: cyber-bullying, paedophilia, etc., being at the darker end of the spectrum.

As ever Shirky is always readable, well researched and challenging. This is a "must read" for anyone interested in social media.
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on 28 August 2010
Was good, but got repetative after about 150 pages - could have stopped there and still learned as much. Worth a read otherwise tho.
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on 4 March 2011
Shirky's theme is that many of the social and even private behaviours which we take for granted as 'human nature' are in fact adaptations to information restrictions or costs. And those restrictions are now gone! His conclusion is that we now have the opportunity to restructure our society, our conception of the state, and actually, our conception of our own potentialities. A rare argument for rational optimism, and a call to action. Bravo!
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on 18 January 2011
Clay Shirky has a unique ability to write with a highly entertaining pen about a rather complex matter. Namely that massive change of how we use and produce media. His anecdotes are surprising but important. His knowledge wast (spanning hundreds of years).
This is one book that will help you get closer to an understanding of the massive changes that are happening right now. Yes technology opened the door, but it is our passive brains that has been put in "activate" mode that is the true massive change.
If possible, I think it was even better than his previous, Here Comes Everybody.
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on 15 May 2012
I decided to read this book as it was recommended by a fellow web professional as a must read for people in our field. He was right on as there are so many books available on the subject, it can get confusing.

It's not a how to guide to social media - more of a philosophy about the digital age. I gained loads of insights and so will you, hence me writing this review so that I am social networking the good word!

It also made me stop and think about my 'free time' and how I choose to use it.
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on 16 July 2010
From the beginning this book presents everyday knowledge about old and new media. And to present in a "fresh" way C. Shirky spices it up with a LOT of real life examples like we know it from "The Tipping Point" etc. but this time more boring than ever. I was enjoying his last book, but don't expect any individual new thoughts in this book. It smells of money and I guess that's why it was printed.
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on 9 January 2011
Shirky grasps evidence from anywhere to reinforce his conviction that the Internet is truly a force for good, encompassing the virtues of creativity, morality and community when the reality is often far from this. Whilst he sometimes succeeds in being convincing, he doesn't seem to notice that his examples are exceptional rather than the rule, or that lolcat and other activities like them give the impression of creativity whilst being the height of banality. Some dire logic, and too often he makes impossibly attenuated arguments from scant evidence. Shirky thinks he knows why some things fail and some succeed on the Web, and his sanguine view of how the Internet will improve us is, in the end, superficial and partial. Time for a critical discussion about what we trade away in the online space when we talk about communities and communication, methinks.
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on 18 February 2012
Clay Shirky is amazing! This was a fantastic book for my dissertation. Anyone interested in media should get this! Its actually enjoyable to read as well which is a very good thing if you are doing a large essay!
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VINE VOICEon 8 October 2010
This is Clay Shirky's followup to his wonderful Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together. 'Cognitive Surplus' is perhaps rather an intimidating and opaque title. Nevertheless, he's still his readable, informative and thought-provoking self. It's perhaps not as ground-breaking as the first one, which his why i gave it 4 not 5 stars. That good old 'second album syndrome', I guess. But it is definitely worth a read for any wanting to understand further how the Internet is shaping our lives and cultures.

The general idea is that for the first time in human history, it is possible to harness and exploit the billions of hours of free/leisure time of people separated by oceans for the greater good - through the internet. Here's a flavour:
"The bundle of concepts tied to the word media is unraveling. We need a new conception for the word, one that dispenses with the connotations of `something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs'. Here's mine: media is the connective tissue of society.
... The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics. You don't need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any media in the previous five hundred years. Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as copy anymore. Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data." (p54)

His approach this time, bizarrely but convincingly enough, is taken from detective work. In a crime case, police look for the means, motive and opportunity. Thus he concludes, "The fusing of means, motive, and opportunity, creates our cognitive surplus out of the raw material of accumulated free time." (p184) As a result, he is able to get under the skin of why people invest so much time in social media, from the in(s)ane (lolcats) to the inspiring (Ushahidi). There were lots of gems. Here are a couple to be getting on with

He discusses the impact of Napster and music file-sharing, and noted the generational fault-lines exposed by divergent reactions to it.
"Napster acquired tens of millions of users in less than two years, making it the fastest-growing piece of software of its day. Its astounding success surely said something about the culture, and two conflicting interpretations were advanced in the early 2000s. The first was that young people had all become morally corrupt, willing to flout the sacred conventions of intellectual property. The second was that young people were so imbued with the spirit of sharing that they were happy to engage in the communal opportunity that Napster offered. The first explanation purported to explain why young people were so willing to take, the other why they were so willing to give. Both explanations couldn't possibly be correct. In fact, neither of them was correct.
One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today's thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both different innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea's explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.
Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do. Human nature changes slowly but includes an incredible range of mechanisms for adapting to our surroundings." (p120)

I love that: "astrology for decades instead of months" is a brilliant put-down! But Shirky has exposed a dangerous tendency that I see a lot in my circles...
"... the desire to attribute people's behaviour to innate character rather than to local context runs deep. It runs so deep, in fact, that psychologists have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution is at work when we explain our own behaviour in terms of the constraints on us (`I didn't stop to help the stranded driver because I was late for work") but attribute the same behaviour in others to their character (`He didn't stop to help the stranded driver because he's selfish'). Similarly we fell into the fundamental attribution error when we thought Gen Xers weren't working hard because they were lazy. ...
People in my generation and older often tut-tut about young people's disclosing so much of their lives on social networks like Facebook, contrasting that behaviour with our own relative virtue in that regard: `You exhibitionists! We didn't behave like that when we were your age!' This comparison conveniently ignores the fact that we didn't behave that way because no one offered us the opportunity (and from what I remember of my twenties, I think we would have happily behaved that way if we'd had the chance)." (p122)
"The rise of music sharing isn't a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It's just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives." (p126)

We must all beware of resorting to the Fundamental Attribution Error ...

Then, returning to a theme familiar to any who read up on the internet's social impact, Shirky returns to the effect of the invention in Europe of printing. He points to a factor in Gutenberg's printing business of which I'd not been aware at all. Not only did he print the bible. He printed indulgences!
"Johannes Gutenberg's best-known work was his forty-two line Bible, a spectacularly beautiful example of early printing. But it was neither his first work nor his most voluminous. (He printed fewer than two hundred copies). That honour instead goes to his printing of indulgences.
[Previously indulgences had to be laboriously handwritten but] Gutenberg's press flooded the market. In the early 1500s John Tetzel, the head pardoner for German territories, would sweep into a town with a collection of already printed indulgences, hawking them with a phrase usually translated as `When a coin a coffer rings/ A soul for heaven springs.' The nakedly commercial aspects of indulgences, among other things, enraged Martin Luther, who in 1517, launched an attack on the Church in the form of his famous Ninety-five Theses. ...
The tool that looked like it would strengthen the social structure of the age instead upended it. From the vantage point of 1450, the new technology seemed to do nothing more than offer the existing society a faster and cheaper way to do what it was already doing. By 1550 it had become apparent that the volume of indulgences had debauched their value, creating "indulgence inflation" - further evidence that abundance can be harder fo a society to deal with than scarcity. Similarly the spread of Bibles wasn't a case of more of the same, but rather of more is different - the number of Bibles produced increased the range of Bibles produces, with cheap Bibles translated into local languages undermining the interpretative monopoly of the clergy, since churchgoers could now hear what the Bible said int heir own language, and literate citizens could read it for themselves, with no priest anywhere near. By the middle of the century, Luther's Protestant Reformation had taken hold, and the Church's role as the pan-European economic, cultural, intellectual, and religious force was ending.
This is the paradox of revolution. The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society. So it is today." (pp187-188)

I read recently of one famous English novelist bemoaning the huge threats to the publishing and book-selling industry posed by e-books. This is true. And many jobs, and even a few professions, will disappear. And many of those people will struggle to find equivalent work in the digitalised equivalents of their profession. But with such innovations and revolutions, there's not a lot we can do about it. For consumers will always go for whatever is easiest, cheapest, most available. After all, who needs manuscript copyists these days, except for very special occasions like certificates etc? There's no mass market for them. So, I fear, will it be for 'real' books, much though I love them (see my rant about e-books last year). Scary perhaps, but inevitable.

Shirky is always worth listening to and looking out for. He always seems to me to talk sense and bring insight - so all in all, a great read.
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