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Have you read Cognitive Surplus?

posted: 8.22.13 by Andrea Lunsford

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2009), I practically did handstands of delight.  After thirty plus years of arguing for the power (and necessity, and ubiquity) of collaboration, Shirky’s book seemed to me to—at long last—tip the balance or create a critical mass that would create a Kuhnian paradigm shift.  And indeed, “collaboration” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, as corporations embrace crowd-sourcing, social media users band together for action, and fans produce prequels, sequels, and even substitutes for their favorite fictions or films.

While colleges and universities—and the classes within them—are still slow to change, by nature and definition, I do see pockets of resistance to the traditional valorization of individually-created messages and texts:  the joint or group project, the collaboratively researched and written assignment, even the occasional collaboratively produced thesis.

Such change is supported by a host of research, including Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeShirky’s argument is ingenious:  with the help of some fancy number crunching, he calculates that as a human species we are losing trillions of hours of productive time to television watching. Apparently, Americans alone watch something over 200 billion hours of television—every single year.  What would happen, Shirky asks, if we used some of those billions of hours spent in relatively passive absorption to engage, collaboratively, in knowledge production, problem solving, etc.  Figuring that Wikipedia is the product of some 100 million human work hours, Shirky answers his own question:  if we devoted the time spent passively watching TV to productive collaboration, we could create the equivalent of 2000 wikipedias a year, and just in the USA.

Reading about the collaborative projects Shirky profiles in this book was great fun, and inspirational as well.  I particularly liked the chapter on how South Korean fans of boyband DBSK created a hugely successful protest against American beef imports, but each of the ten chapters is full of fascinating examples that support Shirky’s main contention.  Most impressive is the fact that what he is calling for may indeed be possible.  By several measures, people, and especially young people, are beginning to turn off the TV in favor of more interactive, productive pursuits.  And even when they do watch television, they do so socially, with others.

I have charted similar trends in students’ resistance to traditional modes of learning (via the lecture, e.g.) and their distinct preference to make things happen themselves through research and action.  So I am cautiously hopeful that we are on the cusp of a new way of looking at learning in general, and reading and writing and viewing in particular.  I think it would be tremendously exciting to be a student today!  And I think it’s equally exciting to be a teacher of communicative abilities as well.  We have a chance to introduce our students to concepts like Shirky’s cognitive surplus and to engage them in trying their hands at collaborations large and small.

So thank you, Clay Shirky!

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