Digital-age guru Shirky (Interactive Telecommunications/New York Univ.; Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, 2008, etc.) argues that new technology is making it possible for people to collaborate in ways that have the potential to change society.
By “cognitive surplus,” the author refers to the free time of the world's educated citizenry, which amounts to more than one trillion hours per year. In recent decades, the author writes, most people have devoted much of that time-20 hours per week-to watching television. But that is changing. Young people are now spending less time as passive TV viewers, or consumers, and more time using fast, interactive media as producers and sharers in pursuit of their favorite activities. Their behavior demonstrates that in a wired society it is possible to turn free time into a shared global resource that can be harnessed to connect individuals to achieve beneficial outcomes. Examples include such innovations as Wikipedia, the online free-content encyclopedia; PickupPal.com, a global rideshare community; and Ushahidi.com, which was created to gather citizen-generated reports on acts of violence in Kenya. In this well-written and highly speculative book, Shirky suggests that in these ways new media has enormous potential to transform our lives. No longer an abstraction called “cyberspace,” social-media tools are now part of daily life, he writes. As society's connective tissue, they are flexible, cheap and inclusive, and allow people to behave in increasingly generous and social ways. The author discusses the many factors that have given rise to social media and suggests the conditions that will best allow voluntary groups to take advantage of the world's aggregate free time to benefit society. “If we want to create new forms of civic value,” he writes, “we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things.” Shirky may be overly optimistic about the possible benefits of social media, but he makes clear their growing global importance.
An informed look at the social impact of the Internet.