Cognitive Surplus

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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Cognitive Surplus-cover.jpg
First edition hardcover
Author Clay Shirky
Language English
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Penguin Group
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 242
ISBN 978-1-59420-253-7

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is a 2010 non-fiction book by Clay Shirky. The book is an indirect sequel to Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, which covered the impact of social media.


Shirky argues that since the 1940s, people are learning how to use free time more constructively for creative acts rather than consumptive ones, particularly with the advent of online tools that allow new forms of collaboration.[1] The author catalogs the means and motives behind these new forms of cultural production and provides key examples.

While Shirky acknowledges that the activities that we use our cognitive surplus for may be frivolous (such as creating LOLcats),[2] the trend as a whole is leading to valuable and influential new forms of human expression. He also asserts that even the most inane forms of creation and sharing are preferable to the hundreds of billions of hours spent consuming television shows in countries such as the United States.[2] He sees compulsive television viewing as the modern equivalent of the Gin Craze, presenting both as maladaptive and self-anesthetizing responses to epochal social disruptions. The mass bingeing, stoked by nightmarish urbanization during the Industrial Revolution, ended when, according to Shirky, English society evolved "new urban realities created by London's incredible social density" changing London into one of the first modern cities.[3]

Shirky notes that Wikipedia represents the investment of approximately 100 million hours (up to 2009), compared to 200 billion hours people spend watching TV every year.[4]

Chapter list[edit]

  1. Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus - comparison of the Gin Craze to contemporary television viewing habits, and speculation on what people would do if not watching television
  2. Means - discusses the advent of online resources that enable people to communicate with much more limited resources than was previously possible; gives the example of protests on United States beef imports in South Korea, organized primarily by teenage fans of boyband DBSK; these girls became powerful enough to affect the government's decisions, as a result of their discussions online.
  3. Motive - people get involved primarily because of love, not money; example: Josh Groban's fans spontaneously organizing an online charity project in his name; fan fiction - fans write for the love
  4. Opportunity - gives case of the Z-boys skateboarding in abandoned California swimming pools; discusses ultimatum game in context of internet resources; describes history of Apache HTTP Server and Napster software
  5. Culture - discusses the difference between a fee and a fine in marketing; gives a history of the Invisible College; talks about online coursework collaboration at universities; reviews the PatientsLikeMe website
  6. Personal, Communal, Public, Civic - discussion of why CouchSurfing and eBay websites work
  7. Looking for the Mouse - a history of publishing and some advice for modern business practices

Critical reception[edit]

Upon its release, Cognitive Surplus was praised by some writers who discuss the Internet and its effect on society.[5][6] However, his approach has been criticized by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times for being too academic and for cheerleading positive examples of the online use of cognitive surplus.[1] Author Jonah Lehrer criticized what he saw as Shirky's premise that forms of consumption, cultural consumption in particular, are inherently less worthy than producing and sharing.[7]


Couch surfing: network that provides hospitality for users looking for places to sleep and hosts willing to allow users to use their home.[8]

InnoCentive: network that seeks users that attempt to solve problems in a collaborative effort; network that motivates innovation that is open and highly collaborative.[9]

Yelp: online “guide” that reviews local businesses in which users can use and access to browse services, products, etc.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Manjoo, Farhad (August 8, 2010). "When the Screen Goes Blank". The New York Times Book Review. 
  2. ^ a b Walker, Tim (July 16, 2010). "Cognitive Surplus, By Clay Shirky". The Independent. 
  3. ^ Shirky, Clay (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin. pp. 1–3. ISBN 978-1-59420-253-7. 
  4. ^ Cognitive Surplus, p. 49
  5. ^ Chatfield, Tom (June 27, 2010). "Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ Harkin, James (July 5, 2010). "Cognitive Surplus". The Financial Times. 
  7. ^ Lehrer, Jonah (June 9, 2010). "Cognitive Surplus". 
  8. ^ "Couchsurfing". 
  9. ^ "Innocentive". 
  10. ^ "Yelp". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]