Clay Shirky on civic value and cognitive surplus


pink chaddi campaignA few weeks ago when I signed up to tech4Africa  and started to feel the hype of Clay Shirky, I asked my bookshop for a copy of his latest book, Cognitive Surplus. Fortuitously, the day before the conference, they phoned and said it had arrived. I’m a bit of an avid reader and always have a pile of books next to my bed, but I generally go for novels and non-fiction. My work reading is mostly done online.  Nevertheless, I thought I’d give this one a try – video’s of Clay Shirky seemed interesting enough.
Flipping through the pages after a rather hasty purchase, I got sucked in with his opening pages about the gin craze of London in the 1700’s. I had to drag myself away to answer my phone and get back to work.  I was itching to get back to it. Shirky’s story of how “the sitcom” is our modern day “gin” is fascinating and makes you feel pretty sick about how much TV time you’ve wasted over the years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not much of a couch potato myself, but there have been times where “the decision to watch TV often preceded what might be on at any given moment”. Not sure about the African stats, but apparently Americans watch approximately 200 billion hours of TV a year. We’ve given up a lot of (previously social) free time to get sucked into passive, lonely, self absorbed behaviour.

Shirky’s ideas about “cognitive surplus” started when talking to a tv producer about Wikipedia and she asked him “where do people find the time?” A pretty ludicrous question giving how much time people spend vegging on the couch in front of the TV. This got him thinking … “imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as .. a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would that surplus  be?”.
Well, that’s the big question really.  Instead of plopping down in front of the television every spare moment of the day, imagine if we started being more social (instead of surrogately social – read his book if you want to know what I’m talking about). Imagine if we spent more time chatting to friends and talking to our neighbours … ultimately building social capital. Just imagine what we could creatively achieve. The possibilities are limitless.
Clay Shirky began his keynote talk at tech4Africa with an example of solving collective action dilemmas  with collective solutions. He used the example of the pink chaddi campaign – a fabulous association of “loose, forward and pub-going women” (otherwise known as the pink chaddi campaign) who were responding to threats of violence against women in India by using online co-ordination to organise real world co-ordination and catalyse community action.
Shirky has gained notoriety about his concept of “cognitive surplus” which is based on two things –
1) cumulative free time and talents of connected world; plus
2) the ability to co-ordinate those talents.
Here he linked up with what I’ve read in his book –  highlighting the frightening amount of time we spend consuming media, especially TV, as opposed to engaging in useful projects such as creating Wikipedia projects.
His interest in “cognitive surplus” is in the potential social change that’s brought about by problems that we can take on in a coordinated way, that we simply would not have been able to do as unconnected individuals.
New forms of technology have changed the way we engage with media and each other.  We used to spend all our time consuming. But now we have access to places where we don’t just consume, but we have devices that allow us to produce and to share. As technology become more broadly available, and as we get better at using it, the opportunities to use technology to organise for social purposes starts to increase.  The pink chaddi campaign used humour (a social emotion) to bring people together and support social change.
The future question is not about technology. It’s about the social application of technology.  What are we going to make of the technology? There will always be the fun stuff … but what if we think about using the technology to solve some real life problems, to create civic value from cognitive surplus.
Shirky advises that in order to create successful “next big ideas” you need to start by allowing yourself to fail, learning from the failure and building on that to create success.
Try, learn, and try again … “Lather, rinse, repeat”.

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