“Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky: possibilities?

I am of two minds (at least) about Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. On the one hand, I’m inclined to dismiss Shirky’s optimism as naïve and to agree with John Lannier (You Are Not a Gadget), Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble), and Robert W. McChesney (Digital Disconnect): the internet is not a knowledge factory (“garbage in = garbage out”) and corporate interests may yet exert so much negative influence on the internet as to overpower its potential for good. On the other hand, I’m inclined to hope that ordinary citizens of good will may be able to use digital media as healthy social connective tissue.

Early on in his discussion, Shirky defines media as “the connective tissue of society” (p. 54). Immediately I’m thinking, heaven help us if THE “connective tissue of society” is ANY media rather than face-to-face personal contact in the physical world. And I’m thinking how media (digital and otherwise) as easily insulate and divide us, encourage false beliefs, and focus us on satisfying the most trivial of our desires. And I’m also thinking how many new voices (and ideas) are available to all of us only because media now include digital media. I remember teachers and librarians in the 50s fearing, like Swados (p. 50), that paperbacks would end “real” literature while more “trash” would be printed. But, as Shirky says (p. 51), increased availability always results in both more trash and more “real” literature.

Setting aside overly positive hopes and overly negative fears, Shirky’s discussion is extremely relevant to libraries and librarians because digital communication is becoming (if not already become) the norm, and digital media are replacing print and beginning to replace traditional television and radio, whether we like it or not. Libraries can and SHOULD have a major role to play in helping citizens access and use the new media – for entertainment, education, artistic and other personal creation, and communication. Libraries that take on this role and do it well also will aim to help citizens create healthy social connections which use our “cognitive surplus” in the socially positive ways Shirky describes.

Shirky’s primary message is, I think, that we can and should use digital media to make a positive impact on the world, and we should do that both individually and as groups working together. Other groups have done and are doing so. Digital media make it easy for us to connect with and collaborate with people all over the world — andthus give us the opportunity. We need to provide the means – our “cognitive surplus” – and motive – what we aim to achieve.

Yes, libraries are using social media to communicate with current patrons and to try to reach new patrons. But if librarians take Shirky’s message to heart, we will have to think bigger. What do our communities really need? How can we use digital media to answer that question – and keep re-answering it? How can we serve more and more of our citizens, people who have never used library services? How can we help our citizens connect with each other so that they can work together? How can we encourage and facilitate community improvements? We may have to become far less passive and not simply answer patrons’ questions when they ask them, but find ways to encourage questions citizens should be asking but are not.

Small rural libraries like my own face a huge challenge, especially in poor communities. Will the budget cover enough up-to-date computers and fast enough internet connections, year to year? Digital media that will work on the myriad devices patrons may use? Devices for those patrons who cannot afford their own? Classes in using the devices, the software, the internet in general, internet searches, data bases, news feeds, and an ever increasing variety of social media? How can we provide all this when we can be open only 20 hours a week and have only one staff person on duty at a time? If we do even some of this, will we neglect the needs of those many community members who cannot afford digital gadgets or time online?

These are hard questions which small libraries are not likely to answer well on our own. We don’t have the resources – in money, staff, knowledge, or time – to provide the opportunity digital media offers, even if we long to do so. We will do what we can. But other libraries, consortia, state library associations, and so on will have to help us far more than now seems possible if our communities are to participate as Shirky envisions.

p.s. I’m glad NE Learns 2.0 included this book AFTER the others I mentioned. We’re more likely to succeed as Shirky hopes if we also are on the lookout for the pitfalls the other authors documented.

p.p.s. Following another major line of thought: Librarians (and others) over 30 SHOULD read this book for Shirky’s positive take on the basic fact of hours online being much more useful than the hours on television those over 30 have spent/are spending (we’ve dumped our cognitive surplus into TV). Online time involves actually doing something, not just passively observing, even if the “something” we do is trivial. Much of the older generations’ negativity may be a reaction to kids’ absorption in game gadgets which function only as offline solitary entertainment. Shirky describes how online activity is far more interactive than we older folks have believed, both online and offline (in groups reacting together to online content). He also gives lots of positive examples of uses of social media through the book and, in the last chapter, excellent general advice about using it.


2 thoughts on ““Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky: possibilities?

  1. mariafromval Post author

    I just updated my review with a pps after a discussion with a friend made me realize I learned more from Shirky than I thought. One of my favorite things is learning something that changes my mind — and he changed mine. I’m feeling much more positive about social media than ever before — watch out world, I’ve got some ideas! Thanks, Michael, for your book picks.



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