Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky: Book Review

image of a book cover The cognitive surplus we currently have in our middle class with leisure time, disposable income, and literacy combined with interactive online tools is a fascinating subject for a book and I had hopes for this slim volume. The 17 hours a week Americans have been watching TV can now be spent in exciting new ways like giving on Kiva or blogging right here.
Not long ago, the three years worth of observations and photos recorded here would have been a few slim blank books and a photo album in a cardboard box. The audience: my imaginary children or, in grander moments, my literary executors. Instead I have been able to use this time and energy to stay connected with friends around the country and the world and to improve my poetry and photography and cooking with helpful advice from friends and family. It’s also been a way to express some feelings that would otherwise have not been allowed to breathe. That is how I’ve been using my cognitive surplus and I am very thankful for the internet tools that have emerged to help me.

Shirky doesn’t care about that stuff. In fact, I’m not sure what he cares about. By the end of the book he seems to be simply giving design tips for social media entrepreneurs who are discomfited by their audiences talking back. He completely lost me with this advice; “It is better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it better than to start with a system that is large and mediocre and work on making it better.” Well, yes. No shit. Especially if your intention is to sell your site to the highest bidder. However, if we actually want to leverage the immense resources we have in this country sooner or later you must tackle the large and mediocre. Whether it is the schools, the library, the road crew, your building, or friends there is immense potential and surplus to be tapped and we need courageous people to address these intractable problems using some of our new tools, far more than we need the next app.


Author: Emily

Writer/ Librarian

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