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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

For much of my childhood, the low point of the weekend was marked by the television programme Songs of Praise. I would sit, watch and listen to people singing hymns for an hour on Sunday evening and eke out whatever meagre meaning and significance I could. There was no alternative - it was that or bed, so I endured.

In our household one recent Sunday, our youngest child, Ned, jumped down from the dinner table, almost certainly without asking permission, and announced that he was going to visit a website on which he could draw pictures. Ten minutes later he returned to tell us that the tool allowed him to make cartoons and would we like to see his first animation? The Acrobats lasts 4.2 seconds and it features three stick men who jump on one another's shoulders and then collapse. After making two more cartoons Ned said he wanted to teach me how to animate. That change in the way he saw himself and what he was capable of doing took place in a single sitting of Songs of Praise.

Clay Shirky's persuasive Cognitive Surplus invites us to imagine what Ned and his generation, in their hundreds of millions, will do with this abundance of opportunity to create and share a wild diversity of cultural content, information and ideas. The book tells the story of people all around the world who are using the web to pool their knowledge, time and resources to campaign against sexism in India, clean up rubbish in Pakistan, identify ethnic violence in Kenya and share lifts in Canada. Shirky is interested in the web for how it makes possible forms of collaborative organisation that speak to our better, more generous and trusting nature.

The main enemy is television, which is engaging without being too demanding, offering mild stimulation while people are at rest. The alternative to this mass culture of watching used to be a more demanding highbrow culture. Now an alternative is emerging, another mass culture that is about searching, doing, sharing, making, modifying. It is stimulating because it is created by people becoming active participants, not simply receivers.

Not surprisingly, there are points when an argument made with such admirable clarity and vigour opens itself to objections and counter-examples. There are times when Shirky risks falling into the trap he warns others against: mistaking the technology for what people want to do with it. Our kids - you can tell I am not much of a parent - seem to watch a lot of television programmes, but on their computers and mobile phones. Devices designed for interaction may get used for entertainment.

Often what brings us together is old-fashioned culture. Live performance is thriving, from Glastonbury to Proms in the Park. We have become a society of festivals, carnivals, sporting events: shows of emotion, experienced with thousands of other people. These moments are like religious experiences, but tailored to the spaces and cultures of more secular and consumerist society. Cognitive Surplus has not much to say about this established kind of participative, shared culture.

Yet these are no more than quibbles about a thought-provoking and engrossing book. If there is one significant weakness, it is that the cast is missing some very important characters. There are the good guys - inspiring civic activists, inventive young entrepreneurs - and the bad guys - slow-moving bureaucrats and corporations that just do not get it. There are curiously few capitalists in Shirky's story.

The relatively open web we have inherited may enable self-organisation, collaborative creativity and popular participation. But the web we get in future may well be based on centralised cloud computing services and specially tailored apps that we pay to use. Such a web may be run by corporate interests and be more amenable to government control.

Apple does not get a mention in the book, but its conquest of the mobile-phone industry with its carefully policed app store is one pointer to the future. The multiplayer game World of Warcraft is built to encourage collaboration, but we should not forget that it is owned by Vivendi. The clever capitalists are not resisting the shift towards such collaboration; they are shaping and harnessing it. As a Marxist might put it: there is a lot about cognitive surplus in this book, but not enough about the control and exploitation of cognitive surplus value.

Shirky is the best chronicler we have of the unfolding cultural revolution brought on by the web. But, with his passion for fighting the old enemy, television, he may not have given enough attention to the new battles under way in which emerging media powers such as Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google compete to fence off a digital landscape that is only just coming into view for most of us.

The web still has vast untapped civic potential. But that potential will be snuffed out unless we stand up for a free, public, open web against the encroachments of companies and governments. Cognitive Surplus tells us why that battle is worth fighting.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Clay Shirky
Allen Lane, 256pp, £20

Charles Leadbeater's report "Cloud Culture" is published by the British Council (£8.95)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask