Does Shirky's Cognitive Surplus undervalue meatspace?


Jonah Lehrer has a nice post elaborating on his Barnes & Noble review of Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. Like me, Lehrer finds alluring and valuable Shirky's central point, which is that the net is harnessing in constructive form a lot of time and energy that we appear to have been wasting watching TV. Yet Lehrer â who, unlike me, has read Shirky's book â finds that Shirky overplays his case, and that in his enthusiasm for networked contributions and collaborations he discounts both consumption and many offline interactions.

He Lehrer mounts a convincing argument, and you really should go read the thing â and Shirky's book, too, I suspect. But I want to pull fully into the open something implicit but unhighlighted in Jonah's post. It struck my mind when Jonah mentioned the many good (meatspace) conversations he has had with people about the Sopranos (a favorite consumption item of Mr. Lehrer). If pressed too far, Shirky's high valuation of online activity, which Jonah says extends to lolcats, risks undervaluing many valuable things that don't show up on the Net, and in particular it risks undervaluing meatspace conversations.

True, it's hard to overstate how wonderful it is that Jonah and I and Shirky and you, dear reader, can have these online conversations. And it's wonderful how fluidly many online communities (the science writing community, for example) incorporate new ideas and new people, including newcomers who previously faced much stiffer barriers to joining the conversation. So yes: the net is a wonderful thing, harnessing much new energy and reclaiming much time otherwise wasted. And I certainly share Shirky's (and Lehrer's) horror at how much time Americans spend watching TV, most of which, to my eye, is horrific.

Yet even if you set aside most TV, I think Jonah's right: Shirky's thesis seems to risk discounting or outright ignoring the value not just of reading Faulkner or Elmore Leonard or Harry Potter or Woolf or Patrick O'Brien, or of watching The Wire or a DVD of the Godfather (oh glory); it risks discounting the meatspace conversations we might have with spouses, lovers, friends, siblings, or neighbors about those same (and other) experiences.

Shirky has a nice central point, which is that online networks can harness cognitive surplus as people engage media and each other online. Yet the quality of the engagement must count for something, and engagements â whether with media or another person -- aren't automatically more valuable because they occur online.

I'm going to sign off now. My battery's running down, and as pleasant as it is here working in the garden, I need to take my kids down to the farmer's market. We rarely buy more than a few tomatoes, but we talk with a lot of neighbors and dogs.


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You may be drawing an unnecessary division between conversations. Whether a conversation in online or not is not, I believe, the point.

Moving from consumption to creation is the Lessig-inspired idea that Shirky has adopted and christened.

I'm not saying it couldn't have happened without computers, but there are only a few places it is culturally harbored offline. Those places are rigidly guarded.

That's perhaps a sore spot in certain academic spots that are more concerned with appearance than content.