Things I have learned from… Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Over the last few months I’ve read some great books that have helped frame my thinking about how and why people produce, connect, share and learn. And so I want to start posting some of the main points and what I’ve learned from them. Here is the first of these posts: it’s on the excellent Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky.

The book begins by pointing out that if you look back in history, one of the bargains of the industrial revolution was to give workers the right to eight hours for work, eight for sleep and eight for themselves. This provided much more ‘spare time’ than had previously been known by workers. And over the last few years there has since been a major shift in the type of work being done around the world; increasingly many people are paid to think or talk, rather than to make things or move them around. This change in work has further enabled us to have more time available for our own purposes. Together, these shifts mean that we now have more free time than we’ve ever had; we are moving on from a post-war work environment. And insightful as ever, Shirky suggests that it’s been broadcast media that has soaked up much of this new-found free time – the key culprit being the TV sitcom. The point he makes is that today we don’t see enough of the value of this free time; so many of us fill it rather than use it.

Now, as access to the internet has spread we have become connected to each other in ways never imagined – we can now produce, learn, connect, share, and shop (and pretty much everything else you can think of) online. This connectedness has freed us from simply consuming content to being able to participate and contribute to it inlarger groups. Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus is about how and why we can (and perhaps should) put to better use our collective, accumulated free time by connecting and participating in new ways for the public good.

We are becoming one and another’s infrastructure

As a group becomes larger, the chances of human events will change. Things which were previously unlikely can become likely. For example, in the middle of a big city it’s quite possible that at any one time, someone will want to buy a slice of pizza. As a result, pizza companies can afford to make pizzas in advance and sell them by the slice, confident that there will be demand for them. On the other hand, in a rural village the demand for pizza slices is very low. The result there is that pizza companies only make whole pizzas when they are ordered.

This tiny but important example highlights the vast range and volume of individual needs which can only emerge as a crowd grows. And in larger crowds it’s more likely that someone somewhere in the group will be able to meet those needs. The internet of course enables us to form much larger, diverse crowds like never before. So we can increasingly rely on a wider group of people – both online and offline – to meet our various needs. To bring this to life, just think that only 20 years ago, footage and personal accounts of war were only really captured, edited and published by dedicated people in the field – aid workers, the government and the media. Today, we can see and hear often real-time updates from those who are on the ground, living it minute by minute. With their mobile phones and computers they can share with millions what’s going on around them as it happens. We are becoming each other’s infrastructure.

The rise of the non-professional

There’s an important point to be made about this new infrastructure: the quality of outputs only needs to be ‘good enough’ – we don’t always need the polish and presentation that professionals provide. The age-old idea that we should ‘leave the brain surgery to the brain surgeons’ is beginning to unravel a little. The book points out two problems with this concept. Firstly, we can’t assume a professional is better in every context. Quite rightly Shirky says that he can’t sing happy birthday to his children better than Placido Domingo, but there are times “when doing things badly, with and for one another beats having them done well by a professional”. Indeed, I’m as likely – perhaps more likely – to be influenced by a friend’s restaurant review than one from Time Out; this is partly because it’s personalised and we have a relationship (something the social networks are beginning to understand) but also because often the content is more important than the form. My view is that there’s an underlying requirement for trust in these environments; trust of sources, trust of data. More on this shortly (you can find some of my other thoughts on trust in an earlier post).

Secondly, he says that we need to separate the need for experience of something from the need for knowledge of it. I’d want only a qualified brain surgeon to operate on me, but there will be countless others who can tell me how the brain works and about its constituent parts – and depending on what I needed, they could be of help to me in different ways; the point is that it all depends on the context. (For those interested, there’s a lot more on the ‘knowledge of experience’, often called ‘tacit knowledge’ in the Power of Pull; and a bonus link – JP Rangaswami’s recent thoughts on Doing by learning)

Case in point: the brilliant organisation patientslikeme highlights how crowd-sourced information can be better (faster, more accurate, more instructive, and more relevant) than that supplied by a ‘professional’ organisation. My own view here is that this rise of the amateur, or non-professional, reflects a related shift in the technologies we use to share things (moving from broadcast to participatory) and how we behave in the workplace (changing from worker to contributor).

We need to understand why – not just what and how we do things

I think that one of Shirky’s greatest insights is that “behaviour is a motivation that’s been filtered through opportunity”. The book shows that in order to understand the behaviours around our Cognitive Surplus, like a detective understanding a crime, we must look at means, opportunity and motive.

In the context of the Cognitive Surplus, Shirky explains that the means are the systems, tools or platforms that allow us to connect, share and learn (like Skype, LinkedIn or YouTube). The opportunity is the combination of the time, place and people which enable us to take action. And he outlines the science which shows that there are two types of motive:

  • Intrinsic motivations, which Shirky summarises as a need for 1) increased competence, 2) autonomy over what we do, 3) membership of a group who share our values and beliefs, 4) the sharing of things with that group; and
  • Extrinsic motivations, like reward and recognition or punishment for certain behaviours.

When we were only given the opportunity to consume broadcast media, that’s exactly what we did. (As Jerry Michalski once put it, for a long time we have been treated as “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”.) Then along came the internet and we were given the opportunity to produce, contribute, study, collaborate, participate, have conversations and exchange value in ways – and at scales – that had not previously been possible. And we took up that opportunity with gusto. You see, it’s been the opportunity that’s changed, not our interest – or motivations – to connect, share and learn.

(As an aside, this logic helps us diagnose complex events in society like the UK’s 2011 riots. Many pointed the finger at new technologies like social networks and gang culture, but framing it differently would see that these apparently new behaviours are actually the combined result of the motive (initial reactions to the shooting of a man in North London, wider social issues including community relationships with the police), means (crowd used Blackberry Messenger and Twitter to coordinate) and opportunity (the forming of crowds on the streets after a peaceful protest in Tottenham, and a delayed response from the police.)

Relationships make all the difference

One of the book’s most important points for me is Shirky’s explanation of the importance of relationships. He points to a whole bunch of science (including the Ultimatum Game) which shows that our relationships have a direct impact on our transactions. When exchanging value with another party with whom you have a relationship, more often than not the price or payment will change; this is of course intuitive – we often call this ‘mates’ rates’.

And the opposite is also true – our relationships with one another often change when a transaction (for example price) is introduced. It’s easy to bring this to life: imagine you work as a volunteer (or at least do something for free) and are intrinsically motivated to do that work – you enjoy the work itself, value being part of a group and feel there’s a broader purpose to it. Then imagine you start to be paid for that work. All the evidence shows that you’ll begin to behave differently; the relationship has changed. And interestingly, the more you are paid, there’s a lot of science which shows that your performance could even get worse. This is a good example of how extrinsic motivations (like being paid, or being punished for certain behaviours) can often ‘crowd out’ our intrinsic motivations. (Shirky points to an excellent academic paper on the subject:  A Fine is a Price)

But it all starts with the relationship (or lack of one). He goes on to show that the outcomes for both parties are actually fairer when the parties have a relationship. Put another way, when we don’t know or trust the other person (or company) we care less about them and tolerate less-fair outcomes.

It’s all about sharing

The Cognitive Surplus is at its heart all about sharing and so Shirky takes a closer look at what this means in practice. He believes that there are four types:

  • Personal – it’s uncoordinated, for example home-made YouTube videos and lolcats – anyone can do it but the benefits are mainly personal;
  • Communal – it’s collaborative, for example sharing findings within an academic research group or reviews within a book club – only the group can do it, and only the group benefits;
  • Public – it’s open, for example open-source software – anyone can do it, and it benefits even those not involved; and
  • Civic – it’s for society, for example the occupy movement and the Arab spring – anyone can do it and it’s the wider community and society that benefit.

He points out that much of today’s sharing is for personal and communal reasons; that is, the benefits are primarily for individuals and groups. Shirky believes there is a great opportunity in front of us: to build systems, platforms and tools which enable and encourage public and civic sharing for a wider benefit.

He points to three waves of innovation which underpin this opportunity: a low cost of experimentation; a huge base of potential users; and no need to ask permission. (I see these directly related to the principles of the internet outlined by Doc Searls and David Weinberger in World of Ends –specifically N.E.A.: No one owns it; Everyone can use it; Anyone can improve it).

In order for us to take advantage of these innovation waves we’ll need to design the technology to do so. Shirky states that when we assume people are principally selfish, too often we design systems that reward selfish behaviours – systems which “provide lots of individual freedom to act but not public value or management of collective resources for the public good”.

Instead, he says, we should provide access to cheap and flexible tools for sharing that can tap into the Cognitive Surplus in a meaningful way. A great example cited is Ushahidi.com, a non-profit tech company who build crowd-sourcing platforms for people to share information and to map and organise that information easily. Originally it was used in Kenya to track and map incidents of violence, where individuals were freely able to submit reports using their phones and the internet; the platform has since been reused around the world, notably in crisis-stricken regions.

In summary

As we increasingly become one another’s infrastructure, and as we build new systems to provide the means and opportunity to connect, share and learn, we can begin to see the promise of the Cognitive Surplus. But it’s why we’ll do this that’s important. If we can understand and enable our intrinsic motivations – the need for competence, autonomy, membership and sharing – then we’ll be able to use our free time as participants, instead of having it filled for us as passive consumers. And building on our relationships, we can together – at scale in crowds – begin to share for public and civic reasons to benefit everyone.

At the end of the book Shirky outlines some principles which we should consider when designing, building and launching new systems or ways of working – these best sum up my lessons from the book so here they are:

  • Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t grow;
  • Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations);
  • Understand what opportunity you are providing –  we must grasp what is being provided and how it will be used;
  • Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
  • Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
  • Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide mediation where needed);
  • Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to feedback.

To wrap up, Cognitive Surplus has really made me think hard about how and why we share – and to what end. If you don’t have time to read the book, go check out Shirky’s TED talk on the subject. Whilst short, it gives you a good sense of what it all means, and the potential of it. I’ll post some more on these ideas at some point soon.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Things I have learned from… Dan Pink’s Drive « Jamie Smith

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