Team 4 Synthesis

Katie Stitt

Today’s discussion about Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus was not what I expected. After reading the first two chapters, I found Shirky’s positive nature refreshing from the gloomy manifestos of our previous authors. Our group agreed that Shirky’s position is one of hope and possibility rather than digression and deterioration.
I think my biggest shock in today’s discussion was the class’s negative attitude towards some of Shirky’s points. I thought for sure everyone would be pleased that one of the authors finally gave credit to our generation and to the future of humankind. Instead, the class quickly labeled him as naïve through several examples of how participation and technology can cause severe cultural consequences.

I, for one, think Shirky is realizing human potential rather than weaknesses. He recognizes that we are not perfect, and attempts to explain that our missteps are simply reevaluations of concepts or creations. For example, his example about “hiring milkshakes” is very representative of our society’s nature as technology’s function changes considerably. We use technology in many ways, and often not for its intended use. Does this make us failures? I don’t think it does. I think our ability to use our means in many ways proves that our creativity will continue to persevere, even if technology surpasses our intellect.

Listening to today’s discussion made me realize how pessimistic and cynical our culture can be. It made me question whether it was the technology (or means) itself that caused the darker side of ourselves to come out, or rather the way we “hire” the technology to serve our needs. Surely there is a balance between the positive and negative effects that arise from our cognitive surplus? While we all were possessive of our free time, we all had different ideas about how it should be spent. Our answers revealed many opinions, mostly defending free time as a way to recharge.

Additionally, our peers strongly received our questions about participation and accountability. Many classmates were outraged that participation can occur anonymously in several media. Others argue that anonymity is a way for more room of expression without fear of retaliation. I wonder what Shirky will say about putting a name to our creations.
In the end, I can’t quite figure out Shirky’s thesis yet. I want to say he has a positive outlook for us as we seem to possess this “cognitive surplus,” but I wonder when and where he will begin to start picking at our flaws.

Amanda Thomas

Clay Shirky’s discussion of connectedness, participation, and surplus, found in Chapters One and Two of Cognitive Surplus, were refreshing after Ray Kurzweil’s cyborgs. It was nice to read about the potential of our generation’s digitalization to further the greater good of humanity.

Shirky defines participation: “to act as if your presence matters, as if, you see something or hear something or hear something, your response is part of the event” (Shirky, 21). We asked the class what it means to participate. One student brought up participation in philanthropic Facebook groups and causes; one must only click “join” and world hunger is closer to being solved. Students seemed to agree that this was a false form of participation; it gives the feeling of accomplishment without actually doing anything. One instance of online participation not heavily discussed is blogging—is blog participation limited to commentators or do readers count as well? When one reads a paper book, one participates without commenting; how are blogs any different? However, reading a blog without commenting has no tangible response, thus nothing is produced.

I found the discussion of anonymous participation quite interesting; the discussion revolved mainly around unkind comments posted anonymously on public websites. Several students offered passionate perspectives. Some argued that anonymous comments allow commentators to write slanderous posts without the consequences of ownership; while, others argued that prohibiting anonymity and monitoring public comments infringes on the commentators’ freedoms of speech. It would be nice to prevent mean comments like those discussed in class, but monitoring public forums can become an issue of rights. Shirky discusses the South Korean government’s response to anonymity and the DBSK incident on page 37. He writes: “The South Korean government is aggressively trying to require citizens to use their real names online… . It is attempting to restore the populace to a state we might call forced complacency” (Shirky, 37). Where is the line between protecting citizens through monitoring and forcing political complacency?

Our group asked one question which remains unanswered: How do we harness the potential of the cognitive surplus? I would like to believe that Shirky has the answer; and, that at the end of the book, we will be ready to change the world through our digital connectedness and free time.


Lenise Phillips

Like Katie, I was pretty surprised with the direction of our discussion—as she mentioned, our group immediately picked up on Shirky’s optimism and found it fairly refreshing after the negative and seemingly inevitable future predicted for us by Kurzweil. While Kurzweil portrays our society to be powerless to the evolution of technology, Shirky provides a contrasting view by implying we are powerful because of technology. Because of the unique opportunities technology provides to us, we have this unquantifiable amount of potential influence and power literally at our fingertips. Shirky seems to encourage us to harness this potential, which he calls cognitive surplus, so that we may collaborate at a more global level to contribute some sort of communal or civic good to the entire world population.

Based on the videos we’ve watched of Shirky in class, I found that his voice as an author is an accurate reflection of his speaking voice, which reminded me a lot of a motivational speaker. And since our class reacted so strongly against Kurzweil’s radical ideas, I was more than a little surprised that they seemed to react—while not as strongly—fairly negatively in the other direction when confronted with Shirky’s optimism. While I don’t necessarily agree with every point brought up in our class discussion on Tuesday, the varying viewpoints forced me to reevaluate my assessment of Shirky’s ideas.

First, I had to ask myself why others might see a problem with Shirky’s level of optimism, and I think the answer to that question came up when we were discussing our keyword and question about participatory culture, what it means to participate, and how we define productive participation. While I appreciate Shirky’s faith in humanity, I agree with most of the class that he forgets to factor in the possibility of negative participation and the potential consequences of such participation. It’s true, global revolution to combat world hunger would be fantastic. But have we forgotten about the dangerous revolutions that sometimes result because of the formation of cyberterrorist groups? A man from Bristow, VA recently pleaded guilty to “supporting an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group in Somalia and posting online threats to the creators of ‘South Park’.” He also posted online propaganda on behalf of a terror network based in Somalia, al-Shabab. (“Va. man who launched online attacks on 'South Park' admits helping al-Qaida linked terrorists”) Shirky got it right in implying that just one person can make a difference on the web, but it’s important to realize even the smallest difference could have a larger, more dangerous impact.

In Shirky’s defense, he does skim the surface on the negative consequences of a participatory culture in action when he describes the political rallies that resulted as a result of a forum discussion on the South Korean band DBSK’s website. Unsurprisingly, the government wanted to see an end to these protests, even though they were “relatively peaceful” (Shirky 35). Thousands apparently watched online videos showing police beating and clubbing innocent teenage girls, and as a result, global awareness on this mistreatment of peaceful protesters spread like wildfire. Shirky views this exponential growth of mass awareness as a positive result of technology, but he doesn’t spend enough time analyzing the consequences such beatings may have had on the protestors themselves. Even though organizations condemned South Korean police for its brutality, how do we know that their brutality didn’t serve the government’s purpose? The protest allegedly grew bigger after the attacks, but who’s to say that those who witnessed such brutality were not discouraged from potentially advocating or protesting a controversial issue in the future?

So to sum this all up, I honestly do find Shirky’s optimism refreshing, but I think his choice to seemingly ignore the more negative effects of widely accessible technology takes away some of his credibility. Unfortunately we don’t like in a world where every one holds the door open for the person behind them or where people appreciate someone else expressing his/her opinion, even if its not one they necessarily agree with; Shirky needs to add a sense of realism to his argument in order to spark true social revolution.