“Cognitive Surplus”

Author: Clay Shirky

Presentation: “How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World”

Review By: Cassandra Nelson

Date: 3 April 2013

Preface: The theory that I’ve chosen to review isn’t necessarily a “DH theory,” whatever such a thing is if it even exists, but it does address certain topics that pertain to the unique goals and characteristics of DH and many of the projects produced in the name of DH. Also, if this review seems somewhat familiar to you, it’s because I based my layout on Joseph Santoli’s theory review. Thanks Joe.

The media landscape in the 20th century was very good at helping people consume, and we got, as a result, very good at consuming. But now that we’ve been given media tools — the Internet, mobile phones — that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share. And it’s those two things together — ancient human motivation and the modern tools to allow that motivation to be joined up in large-scale efforts — that are the new design resource. And using cognitive surplus, we’re starting to see truly incredible experiments in scientific, literary, artistic, political efforts.

-Clay Shirky


Clay Shirky’s argument centers around the idea that humans possess an innate desire to create and share and that the media landscape of the 21st century allows for them to create and share in new, innovative ways and on a larger scale than ever before. Shirky calls this resource created by the combination of these two elements, human generosity and digital technology, cognitive surplus and argues that it “represents the ability of the world’s population to volunteer and to contribute and collaborate on large, sometimes global, projects.” To support this theory, Shirky gives two examples of large-scale collaboration: Ushahidi and LOLcats. Ushahidi is an open-source website that, at its most basic level, aggregates information and reports from multiple people and multiple sources, maps that information, and makes it public. The website began as a response to ethnic violence in Kenya and then became repurposed for tracking electoral fraud in Mexico, snow in Washington D.C., and the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Thus, Ushahidi went from “a single idea and a single implementation in East Africa in the beginning of 2008 to a global deployment in less than three years.” LOLcats, on the other hand, are viral memes; to use Clay Shirky’s phrasing, “LOLcats are cute pictures of cats made cuter with the addition of cute captions.”

So what do these two have in common? First, they are both types of creation. Shirky argues that the freedom to experiment and create means that people will be free to experiment with and create anything they want no matter how stupid it is, but it also means that they will be making that first crucial step between not creating and creating, from which point they can start getting better at experimenting and creating. Secondly, they are both based on what Shirky calls “design for generosity.” Both of these creations are the result of people creating and sharing because they want to do so, not because they’re being required or compensated to do so. The critical difference between the two is that LOLcats have “communal value” – “value created by the participants for each other” – whereas Ushahidi has “civic value” – “value created by the participants but enjoyed by society as a whole.” Ushahidi doesn’t aim to just better the lives of the members of Ushahidi but to better the lives of the entire society in which it operates.


Personally, I really want to agree with Clay Shirky. There’s an obvious appeal to his theory that the majority of humanity will use the digital technology they have to create and share in a way that helps a larger society simply because they choose to, because they want to. Who doesn’t want to live in a world where everyone wants to do what’s right for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do? Unfortunately, I’m a very cynical person. While several examples exist of people willingly using digital technology to create and share in a way that somehow helps others, I can’t help but wonder what they personally stand to gain from their contribution. Based on my own experiences, I find that people tend not to want to do things that don’t offer them some sort of payoff, be that anything as small as recognition, reputation, or enjoyment. Instead of people creating and sharing things that help others because they like to, it seems more likely to me that people create and share only those things which they like or which they find necessary to their own well-being or which they believe could one day help them.

This is where the humanities come in. As the humanities have recently come under attack as being exclusive and unnecessary, one of the main arguments that has consistently been made in their favor is that the humanities are actually important to the overall well-being of humankind. An education in the humanities, scholars and supporters argue, helps form more well-rounded, open-minded, critically-thinking, self-reliant, contributing members of society. It’s a tall order, but humanists in colleges across America swear that that is exactly what they stand to provide each and every student who walks through their doors. Humanists also posit that people from all areas of the humanities are crucial to developing a better understanding of humanity in general, how we think, feel, act, interact, communicate, create, share, and so on and so forth. Being trained in the humanities gives a person a certain skill set that allows them to better understand human behavior, patterns, and forms of communication than people who are trained in the sciences would have. Just as the sciences are necessary to understand how the world works and how we can manipulate it to better serve humankind, so are humanists necessary to understand how humanity works and how we can interpret and even manipulate people’s actions to better serve society. In other words, they possess civic value by contributing to the greater society.

As lovely as this thought is, and I do subscribe to it to some degree, for a large percentage of the time, this is not what the humanities do or are about. A lot of the time, the humanities are about holding conferences that are exclusive not only to a particular department but also to sub-fields within that department. They’re about publishing articles in exclusive journals that will probably never be read by anybody outside of their specialty much less someone from the general public. They’re about contributing to these journals not because they always want to but because they are often required to. And they’re about complicated theories and obscure jargon that mean nothing to the majority of society. In other words, they possess communal value by only contributing to their limited community.

This is where the Digital Humanities come in. DH, not all DHists per se but DH in general, by encouraging openness and collaboration, generally presents itself as a solution to the problems of exclusivity and overspecialization that people are currently experiencing in the humanities . And, in many ways, DH does have the potential to solve some, though probably not all, of the humanities’ problems. But, in order to do so, digital humanists will have to be willing to put up with content, collaboration, and contributions that they may believe unimportant or off topic, that they may consider mediocre or inferior, or that they just simply may not like. As Clay Shirky puts it, we can’t “get the serious stuff without the throwaway stuff.” Based on my recent observations of DH, though, it seems like it wants to be almost as exclusive as traditional humanities studies; DH claims to want to encourage collaboration, but most DH projects only encourage collaboration between other DHists or humanities scholars, not with scientists or mathematicians and definitely not with a more general audience. DH has the potential to be of more civic value than the traditional humanities currently are because it has the potential to be more open and collaborative, spreading knowledge and helping improve a greater society. To accomplish this task, though, it must be careful not to be so communal as its predecessor, to focus more on creating and sharing for the benefit of a greater society rather than for the benefit of its own participants. If DH is to live up to what it purports itself to be, it must be willing to slough through piles of throwaway stuff in order to eventually get the good stuff. It’s up to the DHists and humanities scholars to decide if this is a payoff they are willing to make, if this is the future they want and need for the humanities.

2 thoughts on ““Cognitive Surplus”

  1. Rebecca Fil

    Great review, Cassandra. My favorite part was your response to Shirky’s idealism and what it means for the digital humanities. I feel like so many of our discussions go back to exclusivity in the digital humanities. We can’t seem to understand why a field like the humanities in academia, which has until recently thrived on exclusivity and privatization of knowledge, wants to get on board with the digital age, where information is increasingly becoming entirely communal and free. Well, we do know why: it’s sink or swim. But the humanities in academia has to justify its existence as a legitimate academic field, which requires them to not go through the motions of swimming. What I mean to say is: if you could theoretically learn everything you need to know in order to receive a degree in any of the humanities, just by researching information on the Internet, why would you pay all that money to go to a university?

    So I agree with you, when you say: “DH has the potential to be of more civic value than the current traditional humanities currently are because it has the potential to be more open and collaborative, spreading knowledge and helping improve a greater society.” But it seems like you’re talking about digital humanities in general, not digital humanities in academia, and there is a difference. Digital humanities in academia would be, say, looking at a study of earthquakes on JSTOR through your accredited university; I guess regular digital humanities would be Ushahidi, where everyone is contributing to this study of earthquakes, but it’s not accredited. In that case, would Wikipedia also be regular digital humanities?

    I really liked your review, but if you wanted to go deeper into the argument you made in your response, I have a few questions:
    So where does something like StumbleUpon, Wikipedia, or reddit come in, if we’re talking about digital humanities potential to be more collaborative?
    How about LOLcats humanities? What I mean is–okay, so someone two hundred years from now might be interested in doing their dissertation on LOLcat culture of the early twenty-first century. That’s assuming that academia will still be around in the same way that it is now, which as I said earlier, may not be the case. If it is the digital humanities’ duty not to be so snobby anymore, then is our responsibility to catalog ALL cultural information (anything from Ushahidi to memes)?
    How does Clay Shirky factor in all this business about rights to privacy? Ideally, yes, I should use Ushahidi to inform the world that I just experienced an earthquake, so that I can contribute to global knowledge. But that would only be the case if I were in a why-not-share-with-the-world mood anyway. So Clay Shirky is saying that if the world used Twitter in a productive, crowd-sourcing way–to document “a natural disaster, epidemic or political crisis” on Crowdmap, which “is built to handle information coming out of a crisis” (that’s from the Ushahidi website), then the digital humanities and the world would be in a better place. But most people are a little wary of putting their information out there for the world to see, even if it is important information. Sure, there’s a good chunk of the internet population (younger) that is perfectly fine with putting everything out there, but there’s also a chunk (older) who believe that the Internet has no business cataloging any personal information. Global knowledge, in its purest form, means everyone has a right to knowledge and no one has a right to privacy.

  2. Lauren Liebe

    After such a great review and Rebecca’s thorough analysis, I’m not quite sure what I can add. I thought that the fact that you brought Shirky’s point back to the question of “Why DH?” was a good move. I also like a lot of the points that Rebecca brings up, especially concerning the kind of middle ground between the pop culture appeal of LOLcats and the broader civic value of Ushahidi. Where do large, community based sites factor into this idea? Especially concerning sites like Wikipedia and reddit, what should we consider to be of value? Are we only looking for the finished articles and original comments, or do the comments and revisions have equal weight in this communal creation process?
    This is, obviously, beyond the necessary scope of the review, but I find the topic interesting. The only actual suggestion I have is to look back through the review for a couple of little editorial bobbles: there’s a quotation mark missing in the first paragraph, and I think a comma or two might have escaped near the end. Other than that, I think this review looks great.

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