Cognitive Surplus Book Review

Posted: June 29, 2011 by Todd in Books, Culture
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Last month, I listened to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.  I became interested in the book by hearing about the “Shirky Principle,” particularly as it relates to the church on Tony Jones’ blog.  The Shirky Principle basically states that institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.  It’s a brilliant observation and I’m still wrestling with what it means for the church, particularly in the midst of mainline decline.

The basic premise of the book is that with the rise of interactive technologies – social media, Internet, etc., people create things of value with their spare time, or “cognitive surplus.”  Much of our cognitive surplus is spent passively watching television, as well as other pursuits, but more and more it is spent creating things of value – such as webs of relationships (e.g., Facebook) or repositories of information (e.g., Wikipedia).

I thought the book was a creative and insightful contribution to behavior economics along the lines of the work of Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely, and the Freakonomics guys.  Some examples were more compelling than others, but I was particularly drawn to the one about the rise of DIY culture, specifically “Z-Boards” (not sure if I’m spelling that right), where people have used their cognitive surplus to re-purpose all sorts of things.


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