Interview: Clay Shirky on cognitive surplus and talents of a connected world

How exactly did Clay Shirky, the best selling author of “Here Comes Everybody”, connect Lolcats and Ushahidi to come up with the concept of “Cognitive Surplus”?

The epiphany came after Shirky got pissed off by a television producer who famously asked him “Where do people find the time?”. The off-handed question was elicited by Shirky’s explanation of Wikipedia and issues raised by collaborative crowdsourcing.

“No one who works in TV gets to ask that question,” Shirky shouted at the producer, incensed that someone in television dare ask ‘where people get the time’. “You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years”.

Cognitive surplus is obviously the central theme for his book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”. The phrase was Shirky’s attempt to answer what Wikipedia, YouTube and Ushahidi are made of.

“The answer is that they are made of volunteer labour. All of those things are created by people who are using their free time and talent, which we certainly had in the 20th century but are now doing so in a medium that co-ordinates group activity, and that’s what we didn’t have in the 20th century,” Shirky told

“Cognitive surplus has two parts. It has the free time and talents of the connected world — well over a trillion hours a year world-wide. And it relies on having a medium where we can use that free talent and time in aggregate. We are seeing an increasing number of projects that rely on those two characteristics.”

But the concept of cognitive surplus didn’t arrive at the precise moment the TV producer asked that annoying question. It had been brewing in Shirky’s mind for quite some time, which is what makes finding out how he thinks so fascinating.

“If I was in an honest mood I would say ‘chaotic’, but if I was in a grandiose mood I would say ‘synchronous thinking’,” Shirky admitted on the line from New York when asked to describe the way he thinks. “I think by combining things. What is interesting to me is not just recognising a pattern or behaviour but seeing it show up in more than one place at once.”

Shirky said he was very conscious of this way of thinking when doing his first book — “Here Comes Everybody — The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”. The book relays a range of stories including that of a woman losing her mobile in the back of a taxi cab and using social media to get it back, right through to stories of kids protesting politically in Belarus.

“If you take a newspaper approach then these look just like a bunch of stories. What I’m interested in, is what’s underneath. The smaller collection of driving forces that makes these things happen.”

Shirky reads across a huge range of sources, but when he does he is looking for synchronous events or behaviours that he can’t plan for.

“Core to what I am thinking about is getting right in the middle of monolithic interests in a well-known subject at a completely random sample of the environment. It is about figuring out the sense of… how to look at things in a way that observes enough commonality so that you can understand something important about the world whilst still keeping a varied enough vision so that you are on the lookout for surprises,” said Shirky.

An adjunct professor at New York University who focuses on the interrelationships of social and technological networks, Shirky has significant influence within the media, in social networks and in the digital and mobile business worlds. But who influences Shirky?

“In the early part of this decade I was interested in the social aspect of the internet although I hadn’t yet decided to make it a full-time obsession. I read a book by Duncan Watts called “Small Worlds”, which was Watts’ doctoral thesis. It was this structure of society, not in an Émile Durkheim or Martin Bauer kind of way, but literally who links to whom in much more of a network analysis than an institutional analysis.

“The problem with sociology was that it had historically been the institutions that made up the shapes of society. What Watt’s turned his attention to was the characteristics of the networks that people are a part of.”

Shirky said that when he was reading the book there was an epiphany on every page: “It was the sheer volume of the shock of recognitions. Since then I have read a lot of John Searle and Anthony Giddens who talk about the kind of implicit bargains that hold society together outside of institutional content.

“In terms of people who write now I follow Ethan Zuckerman, David Weinberger, Yochai Benkler and Danah Boyd.”

You can step further into Clay Shirky’s mind by reading his blog which is filled with his thoughts and articles.



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