Lean back or lean forward

Communal fun and civic value

After listening to his TED Talk on Cognitive Surplus, I’m now a fan of Clay Shirky. And despite still not completely understanding how the open-source model of creating technology hasn’t been choked out by the pay-me-for-it model, I’m more hopeful for open source. Not to mention, I’m more hopeful for the future.

Clay Shirky wins me over by tempering his optimism with insightful doses of realism. Ushahidi is his example of cognitive surplus in action. A tool that provides a great civic value, Ushahidi is a crisis mapping tool that has been used in Kenya, Mexico, and Haiti for great social benefit. It is Swhahili for “testimony,” and it was created through the creative talents and generosity of a couple of programmers (plus innumerable individuals contributing to the crisis maps with relevant data). He argues that we can’t have the Ushahidis of the world without also having the concurrent glut of LOLcats: the cute cat pictures that are ubiquitous to the internet and which are pretty idle, useless fun. The important thing is the shift that has enabled both LOLcats and Ushahidi.

Lean back, lean forward

The shift is one of leaning back versus one of leaning forward. The 20th century was largely a TV culture: lean back in a passive manner and consume. What the 21st century is seeing is a shift to leaning forward, much like the way you lean forward when using a computer or a mobile device. The qualities that the interaction takes on is a crucial one. Leaning forward is an active posture that enables participation and creativity.

Shirky says of cognitive surplus that it represents the ability of the population to volunteer and contribute on large — sometimes global — projects. It is based on human generosity and the desire to create. He says it is made up of two things:

  1. Free time and talents (globally, over a trillion hours a year of free time)
  2. Media tools (internet, mobile devices)

Assuming that our free time will remain at the levels Shirky claims it is at (personally, mine seems to be steadily shrinking, but that’s another topic), then humankind has great opportunities to contribute to the common good. Media tools are the medium that allow that time to be used more constructively than in the past. They are what allow the shift to happen — the shift to more civic benefit. That is big and exciting news to think about.

Here Comes Everybody

Djuna Barnes - Joyce

James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

Shirky has a couple of books out. The older one is called Here Comes Everybody. He wins me over again with his title that I’m sure is a reference to Jame’s Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. HCE are the initials of the main character in Finnegans Wake. Those initials vary widely in what they stand for in the novel: eg. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Haveth Childers Everywhere, Howth Castle and Environs, and of course, Here Comes Everybody. HCE in Joyce is the allegorical representation of all humanity. Shirky borrows HCE to show that despite all of humanity’s silly LOLcatting, it has vast potential to do good stuff.

Shirky’s more recent book is Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. As Cory Doctorow reviews it at Boing Boing, it “fizzes with insights.” I hope to read it as soon as I have some of that free time Shirky talks about.

One Response to “Lean back or lean forward”

  1. Lisa Sieverts October 30, 2010 at 3:07 am //

    Welcome back! Great great post. I didn’t know about the Joyce reference in Here Comes Everybody so thank you for sharing that.