Evgeny Morozov reviews Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, in Boston Review:
The main argument of Cognitive Surplus rests on a striking analogy. Just as gin helped the British to smooth out the brutal consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the Internet is helping us to deal more constructively with the abundance of free time generated by modern economies.
Shirky argues that free time became a problem after the end of WWII, as Western economies grew more automated and more prosperous. Heavy consumption of television provided an initial solution. Gin, that “critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another,” gave way to the sitcom.
More recently TV viewing has given way to the Internet. Shirky argues that much of today’s online culture—including videos of toilet-flushing cats and Wikipedia editors wasting 19,000 (!) words on an argument about whether the neologism “malamanteau” belongs on the site—is much better than television. Better because, while sitcoms give us couch potatoes, the Internet nudges us toward creative work.
That said, Cognitive Surplus is not a celebration of digital creativity along the lines of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman or Lawrence Lessig’s “remix culture.” Shirky instead focuses on the sharing aspect of online creation: we are, he asserts, by nature social, so the Internet, unlike television, lets us be who we really are. “No one would create a lolcat to keep for themselves,” Shirky argues, referring to the bête noire of Internet-bashers, the humorous photos of cats spiced up with funny and provocative captions. “Cognitive surplus” is what results when we multiply our constantly expanding free time by the tremendous power of the Internet to enable us do more with less, and to do it together with others.