What Cognitive Surplus means for journalism

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Clay Shirky’s second book is replete with examples of how community and citizen-produced media are making the world a better place.

This kind of optimism is attractive, and goes some way to explain why Cognitive Surplus has been hailed as The Book about the e-revolution. In it, Shirky amplifies his thesis – first made in Here Comes Everybody – that ‘the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource’. (p 27) To put it another way, using a favourite word of his, the ‘aggregate’ of time made possible by digital technology leads to more altruism.

The problem with this argument is not that Shirky is wrong. Many online developments from Ushahidi, a multi-media platform enabling ordinary people to pool information about fast-moving crises, to the tiniest hyperlocal, are manifestly a force for the good. The difficulty lies with what he doesn’t acknowledge – the darker side of the digital revolution which, if unchecked, undermines the quality of any journalism worth having.

When he does deal with the less palatable sides of this e-volution, Shirky does so only cursorily. For example, he acknowledges the possibility that what’s been dubbed ‘digital sharecropping’ – the profiting by commercial platform owners from the free labour of the amateur contributors that create their product – might be exploitative, but goes on to put such a view down to the ‘professional jealousy’ of journalists. (p 57)

The book relies heavily on this distinction between professionals and amateurs. Shirky argues that the motivation between those who create content for money and those who do so for love is fundamentally different, implying the latter group to be motivated by a purity that their professional counterparts can’t rival. Huh? When was the last time you met a journalist who was in it for the security and good pay? Has he never heard of vocation – that mix of conviction and temperament that propels journos, along with nurses, artists and hosts of others – into careers that are perilous, badly paid, or both, largely because they can’t bear to do anything else?

Of course, journalists, like everyone else, have interests to defend. But they know about the dark side of the digital revolution because they’re up against it all the time, and see first hand the cost-cutting and short termism that it sometimes fosters. In jeopardising accuracy, independence and scrutiny of the powerful, these are trends that are destructive of the good.

But perhaps the best review of Cognitive Surplus would be a short one: It’s not the technology, stupid. It’s the economics.

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is published by Penguin, 2010

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