Monday, October 4, 2010

Book Review: Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky is one of the best communicators around when it comes to how the web influences and changes society. Because the web is at the sharp end of a wedge of disruptive forces working to remodel Tertiary Education, Shirky is a must read.

The basic premise of the book is that we have heaps to leasure time in the first world, most of which we spent watching TV, because there wasn't much else to do with it. Now we have the web, and by connecting up this time, even a tiny amount of it can create extremely useful things. Wikipedia is the poster boy for this. It took about 100 million person hours to create, estimates Shirky, which is about as much time as the US spends watching TV ads. Such a tiny proportion of the available human 'down time' connected up by the web, can achieve remarkable things.

Shirky also talks about the end of what he calls 'Gutenberg Economics', where content is produced by a small number of professionals to a high standard and pumped out, one way to the masses. Everything from the Bible to Survivor is like this.  Much of what we assume is a given (like newspapers being big sheets produced each day, or degrees taking four years) are simply accidents of history, structuring content to suit the producers. We are now entering a post Gutenberg model, where anybody can produce content. It's not as good overall, but there is a lot more of it. He cites Lolcats (funny cat pictures with captions) as  the entry level here. They aren't very good, but they put people over the threshold from being passive consumers on the sofa, to creating something they can share with the world. Some of them will work their way up to better things, and overall the bar is raised.

The consequences for education are obvious enough. Even poor quality content, right here and now - Lolcat Education - is better than great stuff that is not accessible, locked away in a 20 credit hour course. Creating and sharing something - anything -  is better than simply consuming lectures. The good stuff will rise to the top. The conventional University system, where professionals produce education content in a capital intensive fashion and push it out in degree sized chunks is textbook Gutenberg economics, and has no special claim to be able to resist the changes than anything else.

Overall, this is an excellent read, well worth buying, especially if you haven't thought or read much on the area. Having read 'Here Comes Everybody', Shirky's earlier work, seen the TED talks and being fairly up with the play in the field, nothing in the book blew me away, but it was still worth reading to help draw together the ideas. It's a fairly light read. Shirky is a skilled narrator in start contrast to much of the overweening verbosity retched out by many academic 'writers'. If you aren't interested in his content, it's worth reading for a lesson on how real pros right non fiction for a mass market.


  1. Why would academics (as opposed to managers and learning technologists) want to embrace this? 'Lolcat courses' could devalue subject expertise and, ultimately, the profession. And they could deepen the divide between haves and have-nots in higher education even futher, with 'proper' universities awarding 'proper' degrees, and poorer students condemned to recycled soundbites. I reckon this is already the case in the US, where the range of institutions goes from Harvard to Toadsuck, OH Community College. But I'm not sure that's a good thing.

  2. I can't see many academics embracing it either, or indeed big brand universities. Monks didn't really embrace printing - how could just reading a bible compare with the deep understanding you would get from copying one by hand. Ir would be like Turkeys voting for Christmas.
    The benefit of 'Lolcats' Education is that it brings just in time, good enough learning out to everybody, and there's no reason it has to inferior to the college product (Wikipedia isn't).
    Whether it's a good thing on the bigger scale, who am I to judge? I try in this to figure out what's likely to happen, which is different from what we'd like to happen.