Digital Media and Culture Yearbook 2014/Chapter 4: Cognitive Surplus

Introduction edit

Cognitive Surplus, a term coined by Clay Shirky, is the concept of people using their mindpower to create and share content through various media platforms, particularly the internet and mobile phones, as opposed to merely being consumers of media. For example, watching television has now become so much part of our 21st century culture that over one trillion hours of free time a year is devoted to this act. However, with the presence of Web 2.0 and the increasing accessibility to and range of digital media platforms, in increasing number of people are spending this time creating and sharing content. We are motivated to do this in two different ways - intrinsically and extrinsically -and each contribution we make has a different value: personal, communal, civic or public.

Main Concepts edit

Value edit

Shirky discusses that all forms of creative acts have value, regardless of how mediocre they appear. He claims that there is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work, and claims that even mediocre creations have value because they have at least bridged the gap between “doing anything and doing nothing” [1] Shirky splits this value into four groups; Personal, communal, public and civic. [2]

  • Personal - this is the basic kind of satisfaction we get from being active rather than passive. In personal value, both the participants and beneficiaries act individually, but get some kind of value our of one another’s presence. Shirky gives the example of 'lolcats' being a creative act with personal value - it has no other purpose or value other than for personal enjoyment and amusement. [3]
  • Communal - this is something which benefits a small community of people. Shirky uses as an example. This is a website in which like-minded individuals can arrange a “meetup” – anything from groups of hillwalkers, to book enthusiasts, to coffee drinkers. Obviously this only benefits those who are members of the site, giving it communal value. [4]
  • Public - Public value benefits any member of the public. It is fully interactive and is open to anyone, regardless of whether they are participants or not. [5] Examples of this include blogs or news websites such as Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and the BBC News.
  • Civic - this could be seen as a cross between public value and communal value, as it is available to anyone, but is has more of an agenda – typically improving society in some way. [6] Examples of this include charities or awareness websites, such as which aims to improve the lives of women across the globe.

Shirky points out that although creative acts all have some kind of value, we should be more interested in those which have public and civic value because they benefit society, and are also harder to create. He points out that things with personal or communal value, such as lolcats, are never likely to go away or be under-provisioned. [7]

Motives - Intrinsic & Extrinsic edit

There are two types of motivation in terms of cognitive surplus. Intrinsic motivation is when the satisfaction of doing an activity is reward enough for a person. Extrinsic motivation is when there is an external reward for an activity, such as money.[8] This concept is linked to value, because acts with personal value can be seen to be generated by intrinsic motivation, whereas acts with public or civic value can be seen to have been generated through extrinsic motivation, since the creator can gain a number of things through this - improved society, fame, or in some cases, money.

In 1970 psychologist, Edward Deci ran an experiment testing the motivations for why people do certain things. The experiment was on students who were asked to build shapes with seven uniquely shaped blocks. After the test Deci would leave the room for eight minutes and observe the subjects through a one way mirror. In the first instance Deci saw that the students would on average continue playing with the blocks for four minutes into the break, this will have been to satisfy their own needs to fulfil a task or because they enjoyed doing it. Deci then ran the same experiment, only this time half of the students were being paid one dollar for every complete shape that they built using the blocks. While on the break the students continued to play with the blocks for a minute more than the original test. The test was run for a third time with no reward being offered and the students on this occasion played with the block for just three minutes, so less than the original time and less than when there was money involved. This showed Deci that being offered a reward for something depressed the free choice factor of an activity and therefore showing extrinsic motivation can directly affect a person’s enjoyment of an activity. [9]

A second experiment was run by Deci to test these findings, and was again done using students. Four journalism students were the subjects and were not aware that they were being observed. They were told that for every headline they wrote for the bi-weekly student newspaper, they would receive 50cents. Another four journalism students who worked on a different day and also unaware they were being tested were offered no money for their headlines, they were the control group. The group that were being paid per headline were told after four weeks that the newspaper could no longer afford to pay them, and after this the speed of their writing was used an indicator for motivation. The final results showed that a monetary reward decreased a person’s intrinsic motivation, as the headline writing speed decreased when the extrinsic motivation was taken away from the subjects. This backed up Deci’s initial findings from the previous example that one’s enjoyment can be affected by an extrinsic motivation.[10]

Generosity edit

Shirky believes that acting in a generous manner is the basis of allowing us and encouraging others to be innovators in creating valued content. In the past, limited opportunities in the world dictated human’s role as media consumers or ‘couch potatoes.’ With opportunities remaining few, human behaviour changed little, and as a result the status of the population as couch potatoes remained.[11]

New media brought about a change in this behaviour however. The introduction of new technology such as the internet, mobile phones and laptops allowed humans the opportunity to harness their cognitive surplus. They could utilise their generosity by making content, particularly online, which would stand to help or influence others in the online spectrum or otherwise. In the past, many believed behaviour to be a stable category – one that changed very little over time. However, with new media bringing a drastic change of behaviour this theory has been proved wrong. Shirky summed up this new found realisation: “In a world where opportunity changes little, behaviour will change little, but when opportunity changes a lot, behaviour will as well, so long as the opportunities appeal to real human motivations.”

Despite this change in behaviour, Shirky believes that these new tools haven't caused this generous behaviour, but instead given humans a platform in which to express their generosity. Yochai Benkler, a legal scholar at Harvard, backs up this theory. He, along with Helen Nissenbaum - a philosopher at NYU - wrote a paper in 2006 called “commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue.” The title is Benkler’s term for systems that rely on voluntary contributors to operate. They conducted a study into group participation, participation which takes place in order to make these contributions, largely voluntarily, to different outlets such as Slashdot or Kuro5hin. They explored what the social motivations were for people who voluntarily worked as part of a group on different types of tasks. They concluded that our new communications networks encourage membership and sharing and they also provide support for autonomy and competence.[12] The sense of being actively part of something propels us to contribute with the tasks that needs to be achieved. This basic human emotion existed long before the introduction of new technology.

With this new media providing a platform for people to express their generosity, there was a rapid surge in people using their generosity in order to help others and achieve their own motivations. One example of this is the work done by fans of singer Josh Groban, or ‘Grobanites’ as they are referred as. The story began when a group of hard-core fans gathered together to discuss what to get Groban for his twenty-first birthday. After rejecting several ideas they decided to make a charitable donation in his name. They raised over $1,000 dollars at a fundraiser and donated it to the David Foster Foundation. After seeing the success of their first fundraiser, they decided to continue their work. They decided to aim bigger, and attempted to attract other Grobanites to meet and donate through Josh Groban’s website The plan worked, and from his next birthday and over the course of the year raised over $100,000. The success of the fundraising led to the founders creating their own non-profit organisation, Grobanites for Charity. This organisations has spanned sister organisations such as Grobanites for Charity and Grobanites for Africa. To date, Grobanites for Africa has generated over $150,000 to help fight poverty and the effects of HIV/AIDS, with 100% of the funds raised spent to help these causes.[13] Through this example, Shirky demonstrates how generosity is key to creating something which others will see the benefits of. Without this generosity, we would notice a steady decline in civic content and other factors would dominate people’s motivations for making content such as economical.

Collective intelligence edit

Collective intelligence is a term coined by French social theorist Pierre Lévy in his book “Collective Intelligence: mankind’s emerging world in cyberspace” (1999). Collective intelligence is defined by Lévy as a “form of universally distributed intelligence”. Simply put, collective intelligence is based on the fact that not one person knows everything. As a group (or collective) humans must use their individual knowledge to enhance and mobilise the skills and intelligence of both themselves and others. We do this through creating systems of networked intelligence, which is made possible through computers. Through the advance of technology in society, Lévy believes that the internet and the world wide web “will serve to filter and help us navigate knowledge and enable us to think collectively rather than simply haul masses of information around with us” [14]. Our understanding of collective intelligence is core to the concept of cognitive surplus.

Copyright edit

A fundamental aspect of modern democracies is the recognition that products are created through creative labour, such as ideas and concepts. Therefore the copyright law came into existence in the UK in 1710 to:

  • Protect the interests of authors and creators
  • Ensure creators are credited for their work
  • Regulate adaption, copy and fair use
  • Regulate financial benefit

Copyright is a particular issue for cognitive surplus, because with so much original content being created and shared freely through digital media, problems can arise over who owns that material and who has a right to use it and distribute it, and how they are allowed to use it.

Main Theorists edit

Clay Shirky edit

Clay Shirky is a social theorist who studies the effect of the internet on society [15]. He popularised the concept of Cognitive Surplus through the publication of his book, "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age". In this book he argues that humans use their free time constructively to create value. He has written, talked about and studied Cognitive Surplus and has presented these ideas in different formats.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010) edit

In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky presents the concept of Cognitive Surplus, mostly through the use of case studies. He writes about the Cognitive Surplus created by the rise of television and how the internet has influenced this.

TED Talk: Clay Shirky: How cognitive surplus will change the world edit

In June 2010, Clay Shirky presented a TED Talk on Cognitive Surplus entitled ‘How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World’. [16]

Shirky divides his notion of Cognitive Surplus in to two halves; the first half regards the abundance of free time that we have in the twenty-first century as consumers of media and how we may appropriate our individual talents for the purpose of production and sharing, and the second half being the media landscape as it stands today with modern technology such as mobile phones and computers which allow us to create and share that which we create.

Once Shirky explains how we can embrace our cognitive surplus, he goes on to note the two distinct values of that which is created. He terms these as that which has ‘communal’ value and that which has ‘civic’ value. Media with communal value is that which is created to entertain and encourage discourse within a community of media consumers and contributors. Examples of media produced with 'communal' value includes ‘LOLcats’, memes and music, video, picture and text content uploaded to sites such as Soundcloud, Youtube, Flickr and WordPress. Media with 'civic' value is that which is created as an outlet for information and data sharing. Shirky gives the example of Ushahidi, a website set up by two programmers who had read the blog of Ori Okolloh, a lawyer from Nairobi, who collated information regarding the 2007 election in Kenya and the consequent outbreak of violence caused by said election. Ushahidi was used as a service which collates reports from the field, such as those posted online or shared via mobile phones and similar devices, and displays useful information on a map. The purpose of this was to collate the necessary information and display what is happening and where it is happening live.

Shirky believes that we are entering an "age of generosity" as both "civic" and "communal" values are both intrinsically good and not motivated by outside factors , such as economic factors. We create and consume both, not because we are forced to but because we enjoy it. In an experiment done by professors Gneezy and Rustichini concerning the change in late pick ups at an Israeli daycare centre where one remains the same and the other is given a fine when the child is picked up late. The study showed that when the daycare centre implemented the fine late pick ups rose substantially, whereas the control group remained the same. Shirky argues that the control group, which remained the same, should have been operating without constraints. However, it dealt with social constraints instead of contractual ones. These social constraints in turn created a more generous culture. It is this social obligation that Shirky brings into his argument for Cognitive Surplus as he believes we should should be driven by social constraints and not economic ones to produce more "civic" content.

Shirky ends his talk by stating that although media created with the intent of civic value is obviously more useful than that which is created with the intent of communal value, each are equally valid as they both address our surplus of free time and encourage us to engage with one another and contribute to the wider media landscape.

James Surowiecki edit

James Surowiecki is a journalist and a staff writer at "The New Yorker". Much like Lévy his work involving "Collective Intelligence" focuses on; opinions in a group being diverse, these opinions being independent of others within said group and that these opinions and information are specialised.

"Wisdom of Crowds" edit

Not quite the idealist that Rheingold comes across as with his "smart mobs", Surowiecki too recognises that "groups are remarkably intelligent" (2004)and that even with a disparity in intelligence and knowledge progress can still be made. Shirky's idea of Cognitive Surplus can be seen to flow in tandem with Surowiecki's thoughts due to the fact that society as a group has no linear intelligence and knowledge. Societies knowledge is diverse and independent but much of it specialised. It is this diversity and independence that allows society to produce both "civic" and "communal" values at the same time. Surowiecki puts this down to the fact that "human beings are not perfectly designed decision makers"(2004). Therefore, producing two forms of values.[17]

David Gauntlett edit

Gauntlett relates cognitive surplus to the concept of collective intelligence. Gauntlett acknowledges that the invention of the World Wide Web has made it easier for people to share and connect with each other. However, he also attributes this to “Web 2.0”.

Web 2.0 edit

WEB 2.0 “describes a particular kind of ethos and approach”. Web 2.0 pages are used for connecting with others and sharing content[18] For example, the content that users created before was personal websites, with a focus on searching and reading. Now, instead of creating a personal site, users start a blog which is widely connected and shared. According to Gauntlett, Web 2.0 can be used as a metaphor for any sort of collective activity in which individuals contribute their ideas to create something “bigger than the sum of its parts”. This concept relates to cognitive surplus because the creation and sharing of content creates both civic and political value, as previously described. In fact, Wikipedia itself is often cited as a prime example of cognitive surplus and indeed Web 2.0. Wikipedia exists solely on the basis of voluntary contributions from both experts and others to create the worlds’ largest encyclopaedia. Although it is simply searched and read by many, there are volumes of contributors creating new content every day in their spare time[19].

Jaron Lanier edit

Jaron Lanier studies digital media and online culture and has written several books on these topics: You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Who Own the Future? (2013). His theories and writings have become influential in the study of digital media.

DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism edit

In the article DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (2006)[20], Lanier presents certain concepts on online collectivism and the collective intelligence.

Collective Intelligence edit

Lanier takes a different view to Gauntlett over what he calls the new online collectivism. He acknowledges that “in some special cases the collective can be brilliant”, yet “the collective can be stupid too”. He notes that there is a problem with the growth of collaborative sites. He exemplifies Wikipedia – it has rapidly gained importance through aggregating the content of other sites, and the knowledge of individuals. It seems that for anything to be verified as credible information, it must exist on Wikipedia. For Lanier, he has a problem with this idea, as more and more websites compete to become, what he calls, “the Meta” – “subsuming the identity of all other sites” (Lanier, 2006).

Howard Rheingold edit

Howard Rheingold is a critic, writer and teacher in the field of Digital Media. He discusses the concept and work of Smart Mobs in ‘Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution’ (2002). [21]

Smart Mobs edit

Smart mobs are defined as a group of people who “use mobile media and computer networks to organize collective actions.” [22] The notion of a community coming together to produce and share content for one another ties in with the example of Ushahidi [23] which Clay Shirky mentions in his TED Talk on Cognitive Surplus. [24] Indeed, Rheingold goes on to note the potential of smart mobs when he states, “Communication and computing technologies capable of amplifying human cooperation already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. Already, governments have fallen, subcultures have blossomed, new industries have been born and older industries have launched counterattacks.” [25] Although many argue that his views are utopian and may never be realized entirely, the rise of ownership of personal media devices such as mobile phones, tablets and personal computers make it more accessible than ever before for smart mobs to gather information and assemble, either online or in person, for their chosen cause. A further example of this is the ‘Occupy’ movement; a smart mob who convened in agreed places across the globe to protest against government secrecy and capitalism. [26]

Abigail De Kosnik edit

Abigail De Kosnik has studied the concept of "Free" Fan Labor within online cultures. These ideas were presented in the essays Interrogating "Free" Fan Labor (2013)[27] and Fandom as Free Labor (2013)[28].

Free Digital Labour edit

The way in which we put our collective talents to work is a social issue and not entirely a personal one, but should this hard work be paid? Abigail De Kosnik presents the term 'Fandom as Free Labour. “Free” fan labor means “free” fan labor which is not paid. These fans may revise, rework, remake, and otherwise remix mass-culture texts without dreading legal action or other interference from copyright holders. Fan production is regarded as poor and of little importance or value. (Digital Labor, 2013)

However, Kosnik suggests that fandom is already monetized as the internet is not free space. Many websites that fans work on are driven by fan activity. Fans must produce for these sites and then share and consume what other fans have produced in order for these websites to be successful. Therefore, free digital labour works by fans increasing the worth of mass-media productions without receiving any pay at all. (Digital Labour, 2013)

Tiziana Terrinova edit

Tiziana Terranova also argues the internet depends on free labour. For Terranova examples of free labour that produces value for the internet can be anything from reviews to opinions to songs and images, that people produce everyday on the web. Terranova suggests that “the Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor-intensive. It is not enough to produce a good Web site, you need to update it continuously to maintain interest in it and fight off obsolescence.” At the moment the majority of internet users are continually updating their online content therefore keeping their websites fresh and interesting, even though they are unpaid. (Network Culture, 2004)

Lawrence Lessig edit

Lawrence Lessig (Free Culture, 2004) is a law expert based at Stanford who specialises in copyright legal history and creative commons. Lessig claims that a free culture supports and protects creators and innovators.

Current law in relation to the growth of the web controls not just commercial creativity but of everyone. Its role is less to support creativity and a civic value and more to protect industries against competition therefore an economic value. Lessig states, ‘The technology that preserved the balance of our history – between the uses of our culture that were free and the uses of our culture that were only upon permission – has been undone. The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture, and more and more a permission culture.’ (2004: 8)

David M. Berry edit

David M. Berry is a Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Sussex. His work focuses on the methodological and theoretical challenges of studying digital media. [29]

Creative Commons edit

Berry has a pessimistic view of Lessig's idea that there should be a "free culture". He feels that it only labels culture as a "resource", and it can be easily controlled and owned at the expense of finding the ethical motives behind ownership. Berry argues that the Creative Commons may allow the sharing of culture resources but none of it is "shared in common, nor owned in common, nor accountable to the common itself". [30] Therefore, it is down to private individuals to pick and choose when to reuse the commons when they so wish. In turn, blockages in creativity become a problem in the cases of lawyers due to the fact that they become mandatory passing points. This means that the "ethical implications" of the sharing of culture is now being restricted by legal barriers.[31]

How Cognitive Surplus has Changed the World edit

As Clay Shirky focuses on in his TED talk, civic value or civic engagement is one of the most relevant aspects of Cognitive Surplus. Nowadays, with the internet never being more accessible, people are able to communicate faster and more often. The idea of sitting on a couch and watching TV in our spare time is less appealing. More often than not, people are coming round to the idea of using their free time in a positive way, like raising awareness on social networking sites.

Using the internet as a prime example, it is an ideal tool to harness Cognitive Surplus. The recent Malaysian Airlines MH370 aircraft that went missing on the 8th of March 2014 caused major controversy all over the world. Mail online posted the article[32]"Student posts ‘satellite’ image showing a jet over the jungle as thousands join online search for plane” written by Sam Webb and Richard Shears 10 days after the airliner went missing and it highlights Shirky’s idea that Cognitive Surplus can be used in a productive way. The article describes how thousands joined an online search for the missing flight via analysing satellite images provided by Tomnod - the official map search website set up in the hunt for the Malaysian aircraft. Volunteers joined online communities on message boards such as Reddit to discuss potential sightings of the plane. Webb and Shears also explain that celebrities have taken to joining in the search, “offering up their suggestions” which received extensive media coverage and in turn informing more of the online search taking place.

This online search for MH370 is proof that when given the opportunity, people are willing to use their cognitive abilities to work towards a common goal. The problem facing cognitive surplus at this time is the lack of infrastructure to enable it. Additionally, the extensive media coverage and global mystery caused by the disappearance may be an explanation for the surge in motivation for a collaborative effort. However moving forward, the lack of incentive for people to spend their time in this way is a critical issue that will need to be addressed. As Clay Shirky originally stated: “Once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your technique, over and over, around the world.” (Shirky, 2010)

Glossary edit

Civic Value - Work that benefits some aspect of society; it is not solely for personal purposes or the good of the entire public.

Cognitive Surplus - The concept of people creating and sharing content as opposed to merely being consumers of media.

Collective Intelligence - The intelligence that is created by and emerges through collective thought, work and collaboration by a group of people.

Communal Value - Work that is created for the benefit of a small group of people rather than a large majority.

Creative Commons - A non profit organisation with the purpose of enlarging the range of creative ideas available for others to have the ability to share and to expand upon in a legal manner.

Extrinsic Motivation - Motivation that stems from outside factors such as money or good grades. To be extrinsically motivated means you are motivated by the rewards you may gain from completing a task.

Hive Mind - The collective consciousness or group mentality that is created when a large group of people is working on or thinking about a similar topic.

Intrinsic Motivation - Motivation that stems from the pleasure experienced from completing a task. To be intrinsically motivated means you are motivated by the internal desires to finish a task.

Personal Value - Work that is solely for the benefit of the producer.

Public Value - Work that is created to benefit anyone; it is not limited to certain groups or areas.

Smart Mobs - A group of people working together with new technology, such as social media, in order to complete tasks that they feel, as a collective, are important.

Web 2.0 A second generation of the World Wide Web that features more dynamic and interactive pages than the previous generation of the web. It allows for more user-generated content and collaboration.

References edit

  1. Shirky, C. (2010). How Cognitive Surplus Will Change The World. Ted Talks. Retrieved from:
  2. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp.173-5
  3. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp. 173-4
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  5. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp. 174
  6. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp. 175
  7. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp. 175
  8. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age . London: Penguin Books. p.83.
  9. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age . London: Penguin Books. p.70-72.
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  13. Shirky, C. (2011). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. London: Penguin Books, pp.66-69
  14. Lévy, P. (1999). Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge: Perseus Books
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  19. Gauntlett, D. (2011). Making Is Connecting. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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