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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: or the Big Society?

Subtitled "Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age", Clay Shirky's book selects and discusses in depth examples which show the capacity of the world wide web to improve the quality of private lives and to transform public and civic life.

At the individual level, powerful home computers plus amazing software plus the web has allowed people to break the divides between producers/consumers and professionals/amateurs. People have discovered ways of using their free time (what Shirky calls their "cognitive surplus") that are more participatory than sitting watching TV. You don't have to slump there watching sitcoms and soap operas; you can dramatise your own life on Facebook or YouTube or Blogger.

Shirky is positive about all this, though I note that the word "pornography" does not once occur in his book. But pornography and, in general, the search for sex, are absolutely central to private use of the web - and in ways which have probably transformed millions of people's lives. It's another book but it might be a less consistently feel-good one than Shirky's.

At another level, Shirky describes many uses of the web to connect people with shared concerns (such as illness) and to mobilise them for charitable giving, for civic action and for political protest. As events in the Middle East currently demonstrate, when everyone carries a camera - and now usually a video camera - in their mobile phone, when most young (and not so young) people know how to upload to the web - well, then there is no way that a regime can hide its brutality. You can keep the journalists away, but you can't keep the people away - they are the ones you are attacking.

In England, the only reason that PC Harwood will face a charge of manslaughter for the death of Ian Tomlinson is that a visitor to London pulled out his mobile phone and filmed the assault.

Repressive regimes and London's police may resort to desperate measures - banning phones, seizing them. But, like drugs, there are too many people using them for there to be any chance of success. Even in North Korea daily life has been filmed and the resulting pictures of appalling misery smuggled abroad.

Shirky does not foreground these most overtly political uses of connectivity. He focusses on examples of do-gooding which fit comfortably into David Cameron's vision of the Big Society - and which show how that idea is realisable.

The key point is that the barriers to entry into the public sphere, both financial and organisational, have been dramatically lowered by modern "connectivity". Not only that, when you are once connected, you are in principle connected to the whole world. Set up a website or a Yahoo! group or a Facebook page for people suffering some rare illness and immediately you can connect to anyone anywhere in the world who is connected to the web.

The "Professionals" point to loss of control over "Quality" and they will attempt to re-assert control. They will award Kitemarks of quality and at the same time put anything so Kitemarked behind a Paywall. I think - I hope - they will lose the battle. Other solutions to the problem of Quality will be found.

This Blog was supposed to be a spin-off from my main website, though there is no link either way.

When I stopped teaching in 2000, I thought about the published and unpublished work I had produced over the thirty five years in which I had been "connected" to the university system - I went to University in 1965 aged 18. I toyed with the idea of putting together an edited collection - my Selected Works - and then trying to find a publisher for it. It would have been a long and probably fruitless enterprise.

Instead, I had a professional-looking website created for me and, bit by bit, with profesional assistance, published and re-published work that I thought was of interest. All of it could be downloaded, printed off, for free.

As a result I have undoubtedly had more readers than I ever had in my paper-based university career. As of today, the Flagcounter installed a few years ago shows visitors from 127 countries - the latest, Iraq. Alexa currently ranks the site at 4 627 553, which makes me laugh, though since there are over 100 million top level domains in the world, it ranks the site inside the top 5%. From emails I get, the people who appreciate the site are students in countries and institutions where getting access to academic work they need is still not easy - either because their libraries don't have it or because it's behind paywalls. I am pleased to have made it easier for them.

I still buy the books I want to read. I live within two hundred meters of a public library in a fine building, but I never go into it nowadays. If I want to find out something, I go on the web. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Originally published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

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