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Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky - Book Notes, Summary, Review

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky - Book Notes, Summary, Review - Cover Image

Published: March 26, 2021

Reading Time: 8 min

Book-Notes

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Cognitive Surplus was a thought-provoking but enjoyable book to read. It raised a lot of great points about the world we currently live in. A world where people are actively consuming media and have lots of “free time” when compared with previous generations.

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Who Should Read This Book?

It’s difficult to recommend this book to a specific type of person as it provides a lot of value no matter who you are.

I would say that if you are like me and enjoy reading about technology, online communities, and how people behave, this is a great book to read.

Also, if you enjoy stories and anecdotes that demonstrate meaning, then this book will be an enjoyable read.


How This Book Changed Me

Of the many great stories in this book, the one I enjoyed and learned from the most was about Milkshake mistakes. The key message of this story is about looking beyond our initial assumptions about something and how we believe things or people should behave.

I believe this story has a lot of practical applications to the world of UI Design and Usability. I look forward to seeing how I can apply this knowledge when I’m doing my design work.

I also liked the idea of cognitive surplus as a whole. It filled me with a positive motivation that the things I can do in my free time can be of benefit to myself and to others.

Being part of a community online, learning in public, and talking to others all have benefits to how we learn and communicate with others.


My Top 3 Quotes That Resonated With Me

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.” p52

“The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative.” p65

“The Faster You Learn, the Sooner You’ll Be Able to Adapt” p185


Book Notes

Chapter 1 - Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus

  • Media consumption has switched from passive to active.
    • People are now interacting with the media they consume. When people watch a video, they can comment, like, share it with others.
    • They are participating, giving feedback, they are a part of something.
    • We can now consume, produce, and share content.
  • Milkshake mistakes
    • When McDonalds wanted to improve the sale of their milkshakes, they hired a team to do some customer research.
    • One clever person observed the customers as opposed to the product and found that people bought lots of milkshakes at 8am instead of a traditional breakfast choice.
    • This happened because these people were commuting to work and needed something they could easy consume while driving.
    • This behavior was pretty obvious but was missed by many of the research because this didn’t fit with the traditional model of a breakfast.
    • This is where the term milkshake mistakes comes from:
      • Focusing only on the attributes of a product without considering the user application
      • Adopting a narrow view of people’s traditions, habits etc.

“When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways, and our new communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share, at unprecedented levels of more.” p30

“Understanding what our cognitive surplus is making possible means understanding the means by which we are aggregating our free time; our motivations in taking advantage of this new resource; and the nature of the opportunities that are being created, and that we are creating for each other” p33

Chapter 2 - Means

  • The old view of the internet was one far removed from “real-life”. We referred to it as cyberspace.
  • Today, that notion isn’t really around. For example, we use social media as part of our every day lives to interact or coordinate events in the physical world.
  • Publishing content used to be something few people did. It was an expensive and complex process.
    • Now all you need is an internet connection and a publish button.
    • Lowered costs and a lower barrier to entry allows for increased experimentation.
    • The low risk allows people to experiment more.
    • This experimentation leads to work becoming better than it was before.

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.” p52

  • When opportunity changes a lot, behavior also changes a lot.
  • The new technologies available to us have allowed us to change our behavior for the better. To be conscious and active consumers of media.

“The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative.” p65

Chapter 3 - Motive

  • Intrinsic motivation refers to being motivated by the activity itself. Like doing things you enjoy and that are fun to do.
  • Extrinsic motivation refers to being motivated by the reward for doing the activity. Money is a typical example of extrinsic motivation.
    • Being paid enough can often make an unpleasant task seem tolerable.
  • Intrinsic motivations are often the most powerful over extrinsic ones.
  • The word amateur refers to someone who does something because they enjoy it.
  • Previously, discovery costs of finding out about things that interested you were very high.
    • Today, the cost of discovery is very low. This allows people to find out more about things they are interested in.
  • “By the end of 2009 an average of twenty-four hours of video were being uploaded onto YouTube every minute; Twitter receives close to three hundred million words a day.” p90
  • When you see people behaving in ways you don’t understand, ask yourself what their motivations might be. Do they have a desire for autonomy or competence? a desire to be connected to others?

Chapter 4 - Opportunity

  • Theory-induced blindness - term coined by Daniel Kahneman
    • Sticking to a certain belief about how the world works prevents you form actually seeing how the world works.
      • This relates to the “milkshake mistakes” in chapter 1
  • With the right opportunities, people will behave in new ways.
    • Before cell phones, we memorized important phone numbers. This behavior happened because of our desire to talk with friends. Unfortunately, it was inconvenient and not enjoyable, but we still did it.
    • With the introduction of cell phones, we could have hundreds of phone numbers at our finger-tips. This removed the need to be able to remember phone numbers.
  • Group collaboration is a powerful way to explore and improve knowledge and skills.
    • Consider the group of Californian skateboarders the Z-Boys.
      • They started skating in empty swimming pools. This allowed them to develop lots of new tricks and techniques.
      • As they continued to learn, they shared tips and tricks with each other.
      • They created a collaborative group spurred on by the idea of continued improvement and a sense of belonging.
      • When they entered a formal skating competition, most of them made it all the way to the finals.
      • They started a new wave of skateboarders.

    “the internet is an opportunity machine” p119

Chapter 5 - Culture

“Culture … is a collectively held set of norms and behaviors within a group” p126

  • To make information clear, structure it like a recipe. A recipe has a list of ingredients and a set of ordered steps to follow in order to make something.
  • This structure provides clarity and understanding.
  • By being able to synthesize knowledge in a recipe-like format, others will be able to understand and benefit from this knowledge.
  • “communities in practice” was a term coined by Etienne Wenger, a sociologist.
    • this term describes people who gather together to share their knowledge and learn from others.
    • These communities learn more effectively and improve faster.

Chapter 6 - Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

“Personal value is the kind of value we receive from being active instead of passive, creative instead of consumptive. If you take a photo, or weave a basket, or build a model train set, you get something out of the experience. This energy drives the world’s hobbyists.” p159

  • Our personal motivations to be a part of a community drive us to share online.

Chapter 7 - Looking For The Mouse

“The Faster You Learn, the Sooner You’ll Be Able to Adapt” p185

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