Clay Shirky On Cognitive Surplus, And How It Will Change The World

The author speaks on the power of collective intelligence, and how to channel it towards design for good, and how to encourage it.

Clay Shirky spoke at Cannes in June as part of a TED Talk, in which he expanded on the concept of ‘cognitive surplus’. Shirky explained the power of people’s collective intelligence, creativity, and efforts – or cognitive surplus – and its ability to benefit the greater, societal good. There were a few ideas and points that caught our attention from Shirky’s perspective:

  • The example of Ushahidi.com – a free, open and crowd-sourced crisis management information platform that was born in Kenya during the disputed presidential election of 2007 (we discussed it a while back). A Kenyan pundit’s personal blog and endeavor to share information during a government-mandated media blackout was supported – and ultimately expanded – by other individuals and organizations. During the past 3 years, what started as an individual blog evolved into a global, collaborative crisis-management platform that has been utilized to communicate and visualize data aggregated from cell phones, SMS, and blog reports – covering the earthquake in Haiti and even the current oil spill.
  • Deployment and collaboration of this fast-spreading nature and global scale would not have been possible without digital media tools and human generosity
  • Cognitive Surplus thus consists of 1) free time and talents and 2) digital media tools that allow broad-reach sharing of the fruits of said free time and talents
  • Some of the results of cognitive surplus may be humorous and entertaining to a particular community of participants (i.e., lolcats), while others will be valuable to a greater, societal good (i.e. Ushahidi.com); while the common denominating factor is that they are the result of people’s intrinsic desire to share, what differentiates them is who receives value from the collaboration – a limited audience of participants, or a broader society
  • This later result of cognitive surplus is design for generosity
  • To understand what motivates people, we need to identify and understand social constraints (those that impact others) vs. contractual (i.e., economic) constraints – social constraints encourage a more generous culture
  • How to encourage cognitive surplus to direct efforts towards design for generosity? Free cultures get what they celebrate, support and reward; we (businesses, governments, individuals) therefore need to reward those that are using cognitive surplus to create civic value

Clay Shirky

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