Gather round, netizens, for Clay Shirky has a story to tell. It’s a simple yet stirring saga of self-organization online, and an extension of the paean to the spontaneous formation of digital groups he delivered three years ago in his breakout book, Here Comes Everybody. But where Shirky’s earlier tract focused principally on the potential organizing power of the digital world, Cognitive Surplus asserts that the great Net social revolution has already arrived. The story goes likes this: once upon a time, we used to watch a lot of television, to spend down the new leisure we acquired during the automated postwar era, and to adjust to the vaguely defined social ills associated with atomized suburban life. That was a one-way channel of passive consumption, and it was bad.
Now, however, we have the World Wide Web, which has leveraged our free time into an enormous potential resource. This is very, very good. With the emergence of Web 2.0–style social media (things like Facebook, Twitter and text messaging), Shirky writes, we inhabit an unprecedented social reality, “a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.” This Valhalla of voluntary intellectual labor represents a stupendous crowdsourcing, or pooling, of the planet’s mental resources, hence the idea of the “cognitive surplus.” Citing one of the signature crowdsourced reference works on the Web, Shirky contends that
People who ask “Where do they find the time?” about those who work on Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, relative to the aggregate free time we all possess. One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.
For Shirky, producers and consumers of digital culture are mashed up into a vast, experimental quest to test the reaches of knowledge and social utility. Does it make for a cacophony of rival monologuing voices and a rapidly expanding market for rumor, pseudo-information and unrewarded intellectual work? Yes—and so much the better! Shirky cheers—for this new Internet is not stifled by old-media publishing standards and elitist gatekeepers. Shirky asks us to consider bloggy self-publishing, which is upending the decaying one-sender-to-many-receivers model of publication: “The ability for community members to speak to one another, out loud and in public, is a huge shift,” he writes, “and one that has value even in the absence of a way to filter for quality. It has value, indeed, because there is no way to filter for quality in advance: the definition of quality becomes more variable, from one community to the next, than when there was broad consensus about mainstream writing (and music, and film, and so on).”
It’s reasonable to ask if this sort of discursive world is one any sane citizen would choose to live in. Democratic culture—indeed, cultural activity of any kind—thrives on establishing standards and drawing distinctions; they furnish the elemental terms of debate for other equally crucial distinctions in civic life, beginning with the demarcation of the public and private spheres that Shirky announces the web has transformed into a dead letter.
By contrast, to hail a cascade of unrefereed digital content as a breakthrough in creativity and critical thought is roughly akin to greeting news of a massive national egg recall by laying off the country’s food inspectors. This contradiction should be obvious in an age where the best-known persecutor of the media mainstream—excuse me, lamestream—is one Sarah Palin, who has also cannily harnessed the social media revolution to a classic one-to-many political broadcasting concern. (One might also gingerly suggest that Shirky’s own blogging output could have benefited from a healthy dose of filtration, given the sexist character of his now notorious, if forthrightly titled, blog offering “A Rant About Women.”)