Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cognitive Surplus, book review



Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky is a must read for those of us for whom the internet is an oxygen without which we would find it quite difficult to sustain ourselves.  The beauty of the book is that it offers a coherent justification all the kinds of things that we are upto.

Most of us have practically quit watching news as an audience. For this audience, news is now a participatory medium rather than a passive one way equation. And this is why people like us should read this book.

In Clays’ words, the time saved by not watching TV creates, what he calls a Cognitive Surplus which we can go about using in different ways. For the first time in the history of the medium – television watching is dropping much to the chagrin of television networks brought up in the industrial age.

More than the statistics, Clay analyses the rather misunderstood reasons behind why people actually make new choices (than watching television) and makes a very coherent scientific argument.

The book starts off with the Gin craze of London in the 17th century. Gin drinking, provided a coping mechanism for people thrown together in the early decades of the industrial age. Wwith nothing to do after 8 hours of work in the newly created industrial setting, people drank themselves into oblivion.

 The government had no clue how to reduce this and tried various means, including legislation but each and every time people circumvented the same. Ultimately the craze subsided as people found more avenues to interact, socialize in an urban setting – like sports, coffee houses, meeting people etc.

Tellingly, Clay compares the gin craze of the 17th century to television watching of the later ages. In a lifetime, he estimates, people would  end up watching upto 80,000 hours of programming. And the harmful effects of it, while not as apparent as gin drinking, are quite real from a psycho social perspective.

From here, Clay masterfully guides us into the internet age where the people who have said adieu to TV and use the available cognitive surplus with the power of the internet and newly created social collaboration tools to create news, campaigns, awareness, activity or activism among other things.

He then proceeds to analyse this Cognitive Surplus through 5 lenses - that of Means, Motive, Opportunity and Culture with a good number of examples.

I won’t go into the details of each of these, because each of these sections is a beautiful read in itself in which he takes a look at some campaigns around the world (some known, some not so)  – most of which have spawned digitally (or used a digital aggregation mechanism) but made a difference in the real world.

So, in a nutshell, a great book for us to read about ‘Cognitive Surplus’. Reading this book also helps us justify that we, while writing on blogs or tweeting away, are making productive use of our time than waste time watching television.

 Because, all said and done, television watching at its highest level is a passive activity and writing a blog or tweeting at its lowest level is an active activity. There is no way but up, from here.

All in all, a must read to understand the social media phenomenon and for people who are in the middle of it, a cool thought provoking read.

(X Posted at CRI)

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