Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

You know what kills me about publishing Every morning, I see the books my readers purchase through the links, and I’d say that for every activist-oriented book that sells, people buy at least fifty vegan cookbooks. We all want a vegan world, but only a tiny handful of us have realized the enormous personal power we have in bringing this world closer. The rest of us are off baking brownies.

The best way to grow as an activist is to read a few books on activism: books like Singer’s Ethics Into Action, Ball and Friedrich’s The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Hawthorne’s Striking at the Roots, and my own Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money. The things that you learn through books like these can put you on the road to getting hundreds of people to go vegan, and to one day becoming an animal millionaire—someone who has kept a million animals from experiencing the ordeal of factory farms and slaughter.

Hands down my favorite activist author from outside the veggie movement is Clay Shirky, author of the amazing Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations I was lucky enough to interview Shirky on my podcast a couple years ago; I hope you’ll check out that interview.

Now Shirky’s back with a new book that I can’t wait to read: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. As part of its pre-publication publicity push, Wired magazine’s Daniel Pink has interviewed Shirky. Pink and Shirky are my contemporaries, and we all threw away an appalling percentage of our childhood and adolescence years watching bad television.

Pink and Shirky nicely capture that tragedy, and how the dawn of a mature and popular World Wide Web is opening the door to an entirely new way of functioning in the world:

Shirky: …As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television.

Pink: The numbers on that are astonishing.

Shirky: Staggering. Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours—more than five and a half solid years.

Pink: You’ve just described our boyhoods.

Shirky: Yes, sitting in front of the television.

Pink: Passively watching Gilligan’s Island and The Partridge Family.

Shirky: Oh, that walk down memory lane is painful. Somehow, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world. But once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population—maybe a trillion hours per year—is a new resource. It’s what I refer to as the cognitive surplus.

This exchange is followed by Shirky’s money quote:

Television was a solitary activity that crowded out other forms of social connection. But the very nature of these new technologies fosters social connection—creating, contributing, sharing. When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one. This lets ordinary citizens, who’ve previously been locked out, pool their free time for activities they like and care about. So instead of that free time seeping away in front of the television set, the cognitive surplus is going to be poured into everything from goofy enterprises like lolcats, where people stick captions on cat photos, to serious political activities like, where people report human rights abuses.

Let’s continue this conversation on the Facebook page. I’d love to hear how you are using your cognitive surplus to promote vegan eating and to protect farmed animals. And what ideas do you have to work with others in order to use your cognitive surplus to even greater effect? Link.


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