Cognitive Surplus: My Review

September 25, 2010

I loved Clay Shirky’s new book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” This is not a book on leadership, but I am going to strongly recommend this book to any and all business leaders. I read too many mind-numbingly dull books on leadership that essentially repackage stuff we’ve known for years and that are designed for lazy-ass leaders looking for simple “how to” advice. Yuk. Shirky’s book steers far clear of that and takes on the much more difficult task of explaining why new media platforms are changing the rules of the game. If you own or lead a business, you need to pay very close attention.

This is a very smart book. My copy is highlighted and underlined from cover to cover. It stretched my imagination and motivated me to consider finding my own ways to take the insight Shirky shares and make it work for me and my business in new ways.

Media is “the connective tissue of society” (p. 54), and new technologies are giving us increased means and opportunity to connect and solve problems that matter.

Shirky’s main premise is we have always found time to do the things that interest us.  All of us have some cognitive surplus – time, energy, and intelligence to apply thinking about and participating in activities that matter to us. For those that find a way to tap into the aggregate of that cognitive surplus, “scale makes big surpluses function differently from small ones.” (p. 24).

Increases in community size, decreases in cost of sharing, and increases in clarity all make knowledge more combinable, and in groups where these characteristics grow, combinality will grow. These three conditions are all magnified by a medium that is global and cheap, and that lets unlimited perfect copies of information spread at will, even among large and physically dispersed groups. Our technological tools for making information globally available and discoverable, by amatures, at zero marginal cost, thus represent and enormous and positive shock to the combinability of knowledge (p. 142)…The single greatest predictor of how much value we get out of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody (p. 207).

If you are not already thinking about how you can attract and mobilize the cognitive surplus of your employees and customers, you are missing the boat. The businesses that get there first will re-define the competitive landscape in their respective industries. But keep this in mind:

Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large; people who are fixated on creating large-scale future success can actually reduce the possibility of creating the small-scale here-and-now success needed to get there. A veritable natural law in social media is that to get a system that is large and good, it is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it better than to start with a system that is large and mediocre and work on making it better. (p. 194).

This book is amazing. It stretched my dendrites, and because I’m a nerd, I enjoyed it tremendously. I highly recommend that you invest some of your own cognitive surplus and read this book.

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Comments (2)

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  1. ANSHUL GUPTA says:

    That’s is good thought continued on the lines of the social surplus, with the social media flavor.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Anshul. Bret