Thoughts on Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky is described as a wise observer of new forms of tech-enabled social interaction, or in simpler terms, an ‘internet guru.’ Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus takes a look at the implications new digital and internet-based media have for affecting not only what information is shared between people now, but also how it affects relationships and benefits the common good of all people. One of Shirky’s arguments, which I think is upheld by most new media scholars, is that digital and internet media allow for interaction between the content and the user; that the kinds of information that is shared and by whom varies greatly from (and is a vast improvement upon) old media, and that this abundance of information that is to be shared freely by all users of the internet will result in a great democratic society.

Another of Shirky’s arguments is that investors, programmers, and others responsible for creating new media need to use their talents and wherewithal to create media for the common good. Shirky agrees that leisurely applications of new media such as “LOLcats” or “farting apps” serve important purposes, but he feels that just as much (or more) effort should be spent on creating more humanitarian applications such as those that track attacks or warfare in a country in real time, which help people to escape real life-threatening danger. Shirky’s wish for this is a noble one.

We spoke of one issue with Shirky’s ideals in class, and I am in agreement with the following. Shirky takes no issue with the fact that commercial or governmental interests on the internet can be highly invasive to the privacy of individuals and that faceless entities are compiling countless bits of data pertaining to all aspects of our lives for the purpose of selling us a product. The information that is collected can be used against us in negative ways, as Eli Pariser hypothesizes in The Filter Bubble.  Shirky doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with this very crucial issue, and while I agree with the points he does argue in his research and ideology, I think circumventing Pariser’s realm of research is truly a problem with Shirky’s work. In any case, however, it is completely fine for a researcher to focus specifically on one area of a particular technology because it is difficult to research, discuss, and write about all aspects of any given technology. If this simple reality is the issue behind Shirky’s neglect of Filter Bubble-related concepts, then I can better understand why he chooses not to approach those concepts.

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