Thursday 5 August 2010

Facebook, freeware and working for fun

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky (Allen Lane, 2010)

Last month it was reported that Facebook has reached half a billion users worldwide, around a 14th of the world’s population (and that leaves aside the millions using regionally popular systems such as Orkcut and CyWorld). Although this fact was much heralded in the media it was not accompanied by much that might be called thoughtful analysis of what this might mean for all of us. A good time for IT media professor, and world renowned guru of new media Clay Shirky, to release a new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

This book comes off the back of Shirky´s 2009 Here Comes Everybody (hereafter HCE) where the author claimed that Digitally Networked Social Media (hereafter just social tools) had a proto-revolutionary character; one which would force changes on the structure and character of contemporary society. He wrote:

A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools ... [yet] ... the phones and computers, the e-mail and instant messages, and the web pages are manifestations of a more fundamental shift. We now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change.  (HCE, p20)

For Shirky, the cumulative ‘impact´ of social tools on many of our lives added up to nothing less than a revolutionary transformation of society. Although this transformation was conceived as technology led, nevertheless, Shirky was clear that it would have far-reaching implications not only for our means of communication (our media) but for the nature of our society.  Social tools signal not just technological change, and a radically re-forged media, but social revolution too. He argued:

Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it. New technology makes new things possible: put another way, when new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring. If enough of those impossible things are important and happen in a bundle, quickly the change becomes a revolution. (HCE, p107)

Focusing on how previously impossible things can be made to happen is certainly an approach with an eye to the future – and Shirky is nothing if not sensitive to what is new - but is his case convincing that social tools have potentially (even actually) revolutionary implications for society? I confess Shirky´s sometimes deliriously enthusiastic accounts of media-sharing, crowd sourcing and flash-mobs (remember them?) had not entirely convinced me the first time around, so, I was intrigued as to how the new book Cognitive Surplus might move the argument along. Here Shirky´s main concern is with how Social Tools make available a new sort of human resource, the eponymous Cognitive Surplus, and how it is to be harnessed.

The book begins with an analysis of the shift that has taken place as we move from a society where television is the major leisure pursuit to one where a diversion of at least a sizeable slab of that leisure time is moved toward activities mediated by the internet, especially those made possible by the new social tools. Shirky´s book opens with an arresting discussion of the gin craze of early 18th century London; as indelibly inscribed on the collective imagination in Hogarth’s 1751 engraving ‘Gin Lane’. If this were a tabloid style panic about social tools one would expect that Facebook - or latest thing, FourSquare (1) - was going to be the target of analogy but instead it is television.

Blaming television?

Shirky – following a long line of liberal social critics (2) - has it in for television. For Shirky the gin craze was a response to social upheaval where a rural population used to village life was suddenly uprooted and had to deal with the brand new and challenging social circumstances of 18th century London. Their response to all of the filth, poverty, cramped conditions and that much up-close-and-personal humanity was to take the cheapest route to getting out of their brains: gin. Television – Shirky claims - provided much the same cerebral anaesthesia and emotional bulwark for the newly leisured, suburbanised and affluent workers of the second part of the twentieth century. Especially, in the form of the sitcom, it also provided a way of meeting the residual desire for social contact; anyone returning home after a hard day in the office to watch Joey, Rachel, Phoebe et al being Friends on one of its endless digital TV re-runs can probably empathise a little with this claim. You watch ‘Friends’ on this model as a substitute for going out and having friends. It is thus television, Shirky thinks, that has soaked up much of the collective human leisure time, with trivia and virtual friends (3) and with it much of our collective thinking and emotional space.

The numbers are impressive: ‘In the whole of the developed world, the three most common activities are work, sleep and watching TV’ (p6). ‘Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year’ (p10). ‘Someone born in 1960 has watched something like fifty thousand hours of TV already, and may watch another thirty thousand hours before she dies’ (p6). This collective leisure time, much of which we have been under-utilising by watching TV, Shirky defines as the cognitive surplus. Into this desert comes the liberatory force of social tools.

What is the cognitive surplus

Shirky´s notion of the cognitive surplus is at root defined in terms of time; time in which we are not working or sleeping but might be doing something else. Yet it can only really count as a surplus when it might be targeted toward doing something else; presumably something valuable. It is the introduction of social tools that makes possible this doing of something valuable (always assuming all the TV isn´t (4)) with the surplus. To look at it more dialectically, it´s not exactly that the surplus was being squandered all the time we were busy watching Dallas and Gilligan´s Island - a show I confess I´ve never seen, but which seems to have perverse fascination for Shirky, as he laments the time his former self spent glued to the box watching it - but rather, since we now have the tools to allow us to utilise the surplus in new and productive ways, it becomes a surplus as such.

We can of course think of an individual surplus, but the cognitive surplus proper, as Shirky understands it, is really only important as a social phenomenon, in which the minutes and seconds that any individual might turn in on a given project can be aggregated into the production of something useful. The concept requires us to adopt a societal view in order to make sense of it, and social tools to make it potentially productive. Wikipedia can be built because the underlying technology – the wiki – allows the aggregation of all those minutes and seconds that would previously have added up to nothing of use to society, but now can be distilled into the production of useful artefacts. An individual´s leisure time only becomes a surplus when it can be brought into some relation with a multitude of others.

It’s striking that Shirky is not overly concerned with the content of what people are doing with these tools from any content-based standard. The business of labelling pictures of cats with ‘amusingly’ badly spelled legends, on the website Lolcats, is for Shirky already minimally creative and one supposes therefore a valuable act. (Although this makes we wonder why sitting back and watching The Sopranos, in that case, is not to be thus valorised). If all that is important is some sort of active ‘doing’ then so much the worse for traditional leisure pursuits such as reading the novel. But Shirky is more of a process theorist than a content theorist anyway. It doesn´t seem to matter what the content is like as long as we are active in its production.

This profligate use of the word creative is unfortunate as it partially obscures what is interesting about the new ways of acting that social tools make available. That previously ‘unproductive’ leisure time can be harnessed to produce useful artefacts or services that can be materially useful and even challenge methods of production provided by the market and the state. That the cognitive surplus can be deployed in ways that might become central to the way society is organised and reproduced is surely worthy of analysis, but, in order to do the job properly, we must consider not just what is changing but what holds the existing structures of society in place.

Social Tools and Political Economy

It might seem that Shirky is arguing that media technologies themselves have the force to change society (and indeed this seems to be an important part of what Shirky was arguing in HCE), but to be more precise, in Cognitive Surplus, the claim is rather that social tools have succeeded in unlocking a source of pro-social activity which has been stifled by previous media and societal organisation. The use of social tools today is legion and Shirky analyses several in detail including PickupPal, the ride sharing tool, Ushahidi, the tool that made possible a mobile phone co-ordinated aggregation of reports of and spotting of human rights abuses, and CouchSurfing, which connects hosts with travellers, but I want to focus on the creation of artefacts through social tools: what Shirky calls Social Production.

It seems likely that Social Production would be the place where social tools allowing new forms of value production might portend really revolutionary change in the organisation of our society and is perhaps where its successes have been most superficially unlikely. Here Shirky spends much time analysing many of the usual suspects: Linux (the free operating system), Apache (the free web server) and Wikipedia (the ubiquitous encyclopaedia). He and the IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg have estimated that one hundred million hours of human effort (Shirky calls it thought) have been invested in the production of the Wikipedia alone. He assumes that this time might otherwise have been spent watching TV (not necessarily a sound assumption).

Now it´s true that the production of complex artefacts outside of the remit of the market (or state) system is certainly remarkable; complex technology has been created before outside these spheres but seldom in the modern context. It is one reason that we need to analyse carefully the possibilities and limits of this mode of production. One critique of social production – Charles Leadbeater sometimes calls similar phenomena mass innovation or mass creativity (5) -  is that they are not really that novel. Wikipedia is modelled on a traditional encyclopaedia, LINUX is a straight copy of UNIX developed in the late 1960s. Of the big three ,only Apache might be considered anything other than a straight copy of something that already existed, and even here other web services were already in existence (6). Let´s allow the possibility that free software may allow certain experimentations that wouldn´t be possible otherwise, but undoubtedly the real news is that these artefacts are produced for free. But how does social production fit in more generally.

While Shirky does look at how individual businesses and business sectors might be challenged by social production, there is a reluctance to factor this back into the way that this fits in to a broader political economy.  Especially, Shirky does not spend nearly enough time analysing why social production does not merely destabilise certain firms or sectors of society – eg, print media or record companies - but is understood to be a more general challenge to society´s organisation (the claim Shirky still owes us a proper elaboration of from his previous book). And this brings us back to whether social tools – or even the new sorts of social connectedness they make possible - really do challenge the current social order as he claims.  Let´s at look the other pre-requisites to making social production possible.

The surplus is by definition that which is not currently being deployed in the realms of necessity – ie, in society reproducing itself - and so can be deployed elsewhere for leisure. This is the consequence not of networked social tools themselves - they just release the surplus - but rather of two prior historical developments. First, the free time opened up for the mass of population by the dramatic increase of the productive power of capitalism and its historical success in deploying new technologies in production. And second, the success of the workers in wresting some of that time away from their employers for their own devices; something that may be under significant threat with the current return to austerity economics. (It´s of course worth pointing out that this second goes along with the failure of the workers to take control of production. Production is controlled elsewhere – is alienated – and workers get in return wages and, in wealthy nations, free time to spend it.)

It is important to notice that the new leisure time the mass of society was able to enjoy was not created out of nothing, or for the enjoyment of TV, but that the use of TV (for instance) was made possible by the deployment of time that was previously spent toiling either in the home, factory, field or shop. The surplus is thus made possible by various productive and social revolutions effected by capitalism, in the first instance by several waves of industrialisation, and which it continues to make possible – in recent times – by massive extension of the capitalist system in China, India, Brazil and the ex-Soviet Union. The internet does not, as Shirky likes to remark, ‘run on love’.

We should not forget that the other technologies of the home, such as the vacuum cleaner, the washing-machine, the pressure cooker, were all instrumental in freeing up time for other activities like Facebooking. If TV is the medium / activity that sucked up much of our free time in the last century, it wasn´t primarily technological advance elsewhere that created the surplus, as well as the particular niche of, suburbanisation, where this use of free time is most convenient. The surplus presupposes a capitalist organisation of society elsewhere, and in order to assess how social production may really possess a revolutionary dynamic we need to understand how it relates to this society more generally.

Unfortunately there is little thought given in Shirky´s book on how all of this extra cognition (really work) might be re-factored into the production process once it is redeployed away from TV. It is worth pointing out that free tools such as Apache are not merely used by the individual – indeed typically are not – but by the corporation. Indeed, even the experimentation that Shirky claims is at the heart of free software movements can be viewed as both extremely effective and an effectively free labour and Research and Development (R’n’D) source for the firm at a time when expenditure on basic R’n’D within the corporation may be at an all time low (see Big Potatoes). This partly helps us explain why, if these technologies promise such revolutionary impact, capitalist corporations (or indeed the capitalist state) don´t perceive them as more of a threat. Arguably a surplus that produces free software and other resources for research and development for the corporation is a challenge that can be lived with. Indeed rather easily incorporated by the capitalist system as a whole.

The dirty secret of free software and services is that they imply free – read unpaid – labour. While this may be difficult for certain business models to accommodate, such as the print media and the music industry, which now have to compete with free alternatives, it is far from clear that it is difficult per se for capitalism as a social system. (It can also be very difficult for workers previously employed in highly skilled jobs who now compete with free labour, as Andrew Keen has pointed out (Keen 2007)). Indeed, the appropriation of free labour through the production of goods to make profit was always central to that system. Arguably too, increasing amounts of unpaid work has become the norm through the dot.com boom up to the present as skilled workers were encouraged to stay at work to finish projects because of personal commitment or because their work was itself now considered fun.

Yes, individual corporations may go bust or have to restructure radically when challenged by free versions of their main products, but it is not so much that the system, when conceived of as a system, is challenged by freely produced artefacts and services, as that these, at least potentially, can allow the system to reconfigure itself. And this, as far as one can see, is much of what is happening today: clever companies using unpaid work. This returns to the central point and one that Shirky still owes us some explanation of from his previous book: whether social production really poses a challenge to the way society is reproduced, or is something more marginal that is allowing the current system to reconfigure itself at a time of crisis. This is a question that the book simply doesn´t face up to.

Social tools can operate as a release valve in other ways. Much of the work which is carried out for free on social projects seems to be a direct result of alienation from dull or unpleasant work elsewhere. What social production represents is a sort of release valve, where work is performed for its own sake (intrinsic reward); certainly for nothing as prosaic as a pay packet. However once free work starts to be treated as real work, real contradictions start to show up. The classic case here is the AOL guides (experienced users) who used to introduce other new users to the services. Somewhere along the line they realised that they were effectively being treated as unpaid workers, the intrinsic satisfaction bled away, and the ex-partisans of AOL launched a class action lawsuit against the company (still ongoing 11 years later). Shirky treats this as a question of amateur versus professional having different values, which in a sense it true, but it really indicates a more basic contradiction. Working for free is all very well when no-one is exploiting your labour, but once incorporated as a necessary component of the system it starts to feel onerous and as though it should it paid for. Free work seems to have inbuilt limitations.

Social production does not seem to have the means to float free of normal work. Indeed the production of food, shelter and energy seems untouched by social production, and much of it increasingly goes on beyond the borders of the developed world anyway. Social production is so far more the gloss on an alienated existing society than obviously a new way of organising society and for reasons just explored it is likely to stay that way. It seems likely that free work will continue to operate to produce software and experimentation at the edges of the corporation and to pick up the slack (poor transport infrastructure) elsewhere in society rather than offering a model for replacing them.

Are we in the midst of a revolution?

The claims about social revolution floated in Shirky´s previous book now seem to be much more soft-pedalled in his latest offering. Where a couple of short years ago he saw digital social tools as social revolutions in the making, his claims are now more guarded. Perhaps because Shirky is sensitive to such charges of technological determinism, Cognitive Surplus takes up the question of what role human beings might play in all of technology-led change primarily by advocating ways to build social tools which are more likely to be adopted. The last chapter of the book is a giveaway here in that it focuses on ‘how to build effective social media projects’.  Here Shirky basically advocates a small scale, cumulative if experimental approach:

If successful uses of the cognitive surplus required designers to get it right first time, you´d be able to count the successes on the fingers of one hand. Instead the imperative is to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.’ (p203)

This trial and error model factors a little human agency back in but only at the level of building tools.

Social tools have provided humanity with new ways to communicate with each other and perhaps even a partial vision of a means of production beyond the market. But without this involving some vision for a broader societal reconfiguration it´s difficult to see how it challenges our society´s fundamentals. Profound social change, moreover, requires a rethinking of channels by which human agency could refigure all of society, rather than rebuild its periphery. Rethinking its possibilities in a more thoroughgoing way will require properly addressing the limits and underlying dynamic of the meaning of work today and its role in broader social reproduction.


Notes and references

1) Foresquare just had a slightly panicky article published on it by the Guardian; panic often being the British media´s – tabloid and broadsheet - tone of choice to introduce new social media innovation.
2) One of the most interesting is the late Neil Postman. See Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, Penguin., Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, Vintage.
3) The notion of virtual friends, interestingly enough, was one that the Baroness Susan Greenfield raised as a spectre in her 2009 House of Lords broadside against Facebook. Here though, virtual friends were those we communicated with through Facebook, Twitter etc.
4) An amusing attempt to argue that TV has been responsible in part for raising our intellectual powers can be found in Johnson, S. (2006). Everything Bad is Good for You. Penguin, London. Johnson mounts the argument that more complex TV programmes – think The Sopranos or Twin Peaks -  have actually played a role, in part because of their complex narrative embeddings and may have actually played a role in boosting our intelligence (part of the famous Flynn effect). It´s not an argument you imagine Shirky would have much truck with.
5)Leadbeater, C. (2008). We-Think: Mass Innovation not Mass Production, Profile.
6) I first heard this point from Nico McDonald at last October’s Brighton Salon / Battle of Ideas satellite event. Jaron Lanier´s 2010 book also comments on this lack of originality dubbing it ‘a disappointment too big to notice’. See his: Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. London, England, Allen Lane.


Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, Broadway Business.
Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. London, England, Allen Lane.
Leadbeater, C. (2008). We-Think: Mass Innovation not Mass Production, Profile.
Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, Penguin.
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, Vintage.
Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. London, Allen Lane, Penguin Books.


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