Blog,TMA 295

Book Report: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

I will boil down the main idea of what the Clay Shirky explains as cognitive surplus: as lifespans extend and better economic conditions create more free time for individuals, they will find themselves looking to fill in that extra space with new activities. The real, deeper question is what will these new activities be? For some, they may choose to work more, innovate more, learn more, create more, etc.

Free time is especially relevant right now during this COVID-19 quarantine.

Though not a term from the book, it reminded me of a concept from another class I took this semester that I think also applies well to what we learn in class: displacement. Displacement, simply, is when you choose to participate in a particular activity you forgo, or “displace” another activity. If I have to choose between playing ball with my friends or doing homework, and I choose to play ball, I have displaced homework. Shirky illustrates that as the economic GDP has risen since World War II, we have been growing a larger surplus of time to make these kinds of decisions, especially in the United States.

There were two chapters that I believed related to our discussions in class on community and identity, Chapter 2: Motivation and Chapter 5: Culture.


Shirky discusses people’s motivations for participating in the activities they do. Shirky divides “motivation” into two separate parts.

  1. Intrinsic motivations. Shirky defines it as 1) increased competence, 2) autonomy over what we do 3) membership of a group who share our values and beliefs 4) the sharing of things with that group.
  2. Extrinsic motivations. This would be rewards, recognition or avoiding punishment.

The third part of intrinsic motivation directly correlates to our discussion of new media in class on community collaboration. It’s about belonging to a group that we identify with. One of his specific examples was fan fiction writers, such as what can be found in the Harry Potter community. Like the example of the Halo players in McGonigal’s “Becoming a Part of Something Bigger,” fan fiction writers feel like they are part of the franchise and doing something “epic” and bigger than themselves. They fiercely defend both their own fan fiction creations, the fandom, and the franchise of which they are fans of itself. Shirky also references World of Warcraft, where users can roleplay as wizards or elves. This is a game where missions usually cannot be completed as a single player, you have to finish them in clans, or organized online groups within the game.

From an outside perspective, they may look like “losers” or “weirdos,” but Shirky insists we look more at people’s motivations rather than question the behavior itself. He explains that people need to spend their free time in communities that reflect their values and beliefs. Humans are social animals and desire acceptance, whether they acknowledge it or not. They will find this acceptance with groups that hold their same values and beliefs. In theory, the digital age and new media allow people to connect to communities that may have not had that opportunity in the past.


Shirky delves into this even deeper in the chapter on Culture where the essentially re-iterates his point that group collaboration is essential to a community’s function as a significant use of our cognitive surplus. I felt this related to our discussions on identity in new media.

An example I loved was an experiment where children that are fans of Star Wars were presented with two options: watch a Star Wars movie in high definition or an amatuer video of LEGO recreations of Star Wars scenes in low video quality on YouTube. You can guess what the kids picked. They knew the Star Wars movies already so they sought the novelty of the amateur Star Wars LEGO videos on YouTube. These children decided to spend their time with media with which they identified their culture (more like fandom) with.

It doesn’t stop at simply satisfying a sense of belonging, it can produce social good as well. Another example was the website, a website, and platform where patients can connect with others with the same disease or condition. They share and discuss their own and shared experiences in order to foster a safe environment for patients that may otherwise feel alone in their struggles. Additionally, the website generates data on the disease from the website and from outside, professional sources.

In closing, my personal thoughts on the matter is that as Americans we’re generally very privileged and lucky since we probably have more cognitive surplus than the average global citizen. That doesn’t inherently make us terrible. This is a natural phenomenon of economics, sociology, and psychology. We just now have a responsibility to be active users of our free time and cognitive surplus rather than passive users. Most importantly, we need to use it for the good of ourselves and the rest of society.

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