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On Clay Shirky and cognitive surplus

I was a huge fan of Clay Shirky after reading Here Comes Everybody, but after watching his recent cognitive surplus talk at the RSA, I have to say I don’t buy his new theory one bit.



While his argument sounds nice – people are watching less TV, so they’re creating more, thanks in no small part to the Internet – it doesn’t actually make much sense.

Firstly, Shirky’s opening assertion that TV viewing is declining is mistaken, as according to Nielsen, the average American watched 153 hours of TV per month in 2009, the highest level ever recorded.

But even ignoring that fundamental error, his theory assumes that more time equals more creativity, when at best, any link would be correlatory, not causal. If not, it would logically stand to reason that Hollyoaks would be Shakespeare if they had more time to write each episode.

Talented people find time to create. Anyone who says they want to write a book but doesn’t have time, doesn’t have the talent or drive. Hemingway famously wrote on scraps of paper while standing up for hours on end. It’s low-end art that suffers due to time constraints, not high-end art created by highly driven and talented individuals.

Pretty much the only thing I do agree with Shirky on, is that innate human desires drive tools, not the other way around. While new technologies appear to answer questions no one asked, all they do is serve a latent demand that has been there through time. Tools don’t create new desires in just one generation.

It may seem new, but we’ve seen it all before in different guises. Wikipedia/Encyclopaedia Britannica, Flickr/photo albums, Craigslist/classified ads, Facebook/writing letters or making phonecalls. I like these tools, and they do make performing certain acts easier, but to paraphrase Alan Partridge, we’re being served evolution as if it is revolution. And we’re lapping it up.

When it comes to quality, these tools haven’t drastically improved the art we’re consuming. Internet tools have lowered the Cosean floor, but they haven’t increased the quality of the art above it. If you remove pre-tournament selection from a beauty contest, you may get one or two more pretty girls, but you’ll get a hell of a lot more munters.

If all blogging tools disappeared tonight, the effect on the overall quality of the written word would be either negligible or beneficial. My guess is that high-end bloggers would be more driven to get published and less talented individuals would return to writing diaries no one else reads.

The publishing industry is survival of the fittest, whereas the Internet has created a false intellectual ecosystem more akin to a safari park than the wild, where everything is protected from its natural predator.

The idea of a crowd driven hierarchy is deluded, as you still need pretty much the same powerful individuals with large communities of followers to climb up the ladder of influence as you needed in the past. Without that backing from an influential individual, your blogpost isn’t worth the free open-source platform it’s written on.

Fundamentally, I’m 100% with former neuroscientist turned author Jonah Lehrer, when he disagrees with Shirky’s assertion that creation is inherently better than consumption. Shirky makes much of acknowledging the creative hierarchy, with Lolcats at the bottom, but only talks of watching TV when referencing consumption. I’d agree that making a Lolcat is more cognitively rewarding than watching a soap opera, but consumption has a hierarchy of its own. You can’t just ignore that.

Would anyone really argue that making a Lolcat is a better use of your time than reading Plato or James Joyce? Intellectuals stand on the shoulders of giants. No consumption = no inspiration = no creation. Not to mention the fact that it’s odd that a consumption-cursing author from the ‘information wants to be free’ camp wants me to pay to consume his book. Shouldn’t I be making a free Lolcat instead?

Most importantly for me though, even if I believed that this cognitive surplus existed AND mattered, is the answer to this question: so what? What have we got to show for it? Wikipedia? The poster child for the Web 2.0 movement is at best as good as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and at worst the largest act of plagiarism ever committed.

While Wikipedia has undoubtedly taught us some interesting lessons on what a group of people are willing to do for free, we already had an encyclopaedia. If Wikipedia had never existed, we would have found the information elsewhere from the myriad existing sources. Its means are intellectually interesting, its ends are not.

How about Linux? We already had Unix. Are these things sometimes better than the thing they’ve ripped off? Yes. Are they sometimes worse? Yes. Are they an overwhelming testament to the power of the hive mind when it is given time and tools to create? Not for me.

The examples Shirky gave in his talk were relatively interesting, but if the best a billion educated people can do in hundreds of millions of hours is rip-off an encyclopaedia, then I’d suggest they go back to watching TV instead. At least that’s creating jobs, not consuming them.

James Seddon's website is jamesgseddon.com, and is @jamesseddon on Twitter.

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