Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week, I was lucky enough to see American social media evangelist Clay Shirky talking about his latest book, ‘The Cognitive Surplus’. Shirky argued that the new creative and collaborative possibilities unlocked by the internet will allow us to unleash this surplus – the vast reserves of time, skills and enthusiasm that we currently fritter away in front of the television – to solve some of society’s biggest problems. But, while I liked much of what he had to say, it struck me that Shirky is being both too too ambitious and too cautious. Too ambitious, that is, about technology, and too cautious about human potential.

To begin with, I have a problem with Shirky’s idea of an untapped ‘cognitive surplus’. Although many of us may spend a large amount of time passively consuming media right now, this has hardly been the case througout human history. The so-called cognitive surplus is a product of the hollowing out of social life through increasing atomisation. The decline in social networks chronicled by observers like Robert Putnam, and rooted in a labour market which demands increased flexibility, mass migration (both domestic and international) and the erosion of traditional class identities, is what has robbed us of ways to use our energies in ways which are both productive and social. And just as, once upon a time, we had institutions which offered us outlets for our time, enthusiasm and creativity – from evening classes, to amateur sports, to churches – there’s no reason why we can’t do so again. The internet is one place where we can spend our ‘cognitive surplus’ but it’s by no means the only place.

And there are reasons why it might not be the best place. In his first book, Shirky talked about how ‘ridiculously easy group formation’ enabled by the internet let us find people who shared our interests and collaborate with them. But this is not the only way to find people. The most vibrant cities and towns create spaces – parks, libraries, cafes, even pavements – where we can mix with people who are very different to us, and yet who we share something important with: that they are our neighbours. By keeping us away from what Jane Jacobs called the ‘serendipity’ of sidewalk contacts, online spaces filter our social networks to people just like us, potentially making us less tolerant and more extreme in our views.

There are other problems too. Online collaboration is very good at certain kinds of tasks. Shirky drew on three different examples. The first, Liftshare is an American site which lets people find others to share long roadtrips with. The second, Patients Like Me, lets patients log their condition, symptoms and medication and then aggregates and anonymises that information to share it with researchers. And the third, Wikipedia, needs no introduction. But all of these sites have something in common: they are about bringing together information and presenting it in a useful way. And all three approach that task by crowdsourcing – getting lots of people to make small, easy contributions which by virtue of their sheer number add up to something very big. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. If crowdsourcing is a hammer, it doesn’t mean that all the problems we face are nails.

What’s more, crowdsourcing, by reducing the work of individuals to bitesize, contextless contributions, offers a hollowed out idea of what it means to create things. In essence, it’s a new form of assembly line which transforms intellectual work into deskilled, mechanical processes. It may be extremely effective, but maybe that’s not the only criteria by which we should judge it.

Creation is important, not just because of the things that we create but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of the way that it effects the creator. Making art, music, software code, or even blog posts, has value not just because of it’s capacity to change the world but also because of its capacity to make us feel inspired, valuable and powerful. Working with other people in close collaboration at a human scale creates a sense of community which can’t be reproduced by making tiny contributions to a project that’s vast beyond our capacity to imagine. The inconvenient friction of working together with sometimes difficult other people in a shared space is not just an obstacle to creating wonderful things, it’s also a way in which creating them makes us better people.

Shirky, then, is too ambitious in that he argues that online collaboration is the tool which will allow us to solve the problems of the 21st century. It’s powerful, true, but it’s only one of the tools that we need. But he’s also too cautious in that he asks too little of people. He offers them easy participation, without perhaps, reflecting that there might be a value to doing difficult things.