Learnings from “Cognitive Surplus” by Clay Shirky

11 Apr 2011  |  Design Graphic Design

Cognitive Surplus

After hearing Clay Shirky speak at Tech4Africa last year, I was keen to read his new book Cognitive Surplus. I borrowed a Kindle for a test-drive and decided that a book on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, was the perfect topic.

Shirky tells a whole bunch of stories to support his idea that modern society has a lot of free-time on their hands, which represents huge potential given the technology and media that is currently available. He makes the point that the 2billion hours of TV that Americans watch every year is roughly equivalent to the amount of time it would take to write Wikipeadia 2000 times over.

Using the police detective approach of means, motive and opportunity, Shirky goes about dissecting the problem of what can be done with all this cumulative free time.


The button called “Publish” has given us the means to express ourselves online. Shirky also points to icanhascheezburger.com and ushahidi.com as the two extremes of how people can use their time.


Shirky has some interesting stories on how financial remuneration can often interfere with more important incentives like: autonomy & competence; membership & generosity; and feedback loops.

The feeling of competence is often best engaged by working at the edge of one’s abilities.


This quote from the book below illustrates the role of opportunity:

The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives.

Clay Shirky also has some useful tips for starting out on a project to take advantage of cognitive surplus:

It doesn’t matter how much you want users to behave in a certain way. What matters is how they react to opportunities you give them

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