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What do I actually do on the Internet? I have been thinking about this and more, as I contemplate what the Internet is doing to our brains, culture and society. By reading The Shallows (Nicholas Carr), Macrowikinomics (Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams), and a host of others, such as some of BrainPickings‘ list of seven must-read books about the future of the Internet, I’m realizing that this can be quite a polarized debate. Clay Shirky’s latest, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, gives us a rational, optimistic, and grand view of what the internet is doing to us, how it’s happening, and what it means.

In this quick and thought-provoking read, internet guru Clay Shirky writes about the effect that the Internet is having on our society. He defines and explains the book’s title in the opening chapter: “The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things. We, collectively, aren’t just the source of the surplus; we are also the people designing its use, by our participation and by the things we expect of one another as we wrestle together with our new connectedness.”

The book opens by comparing our transition into the digital age to that of the Industrial Age in 18th century London. (If this sounds very familiar, you may have read something similar in Tapscott and Williams’ Macrowikinmoics, or seen Tapscott speak about it on CBC’s Mansbridge One-On-One.)

Shirky tells the story of London’s excessive gin drinking, brought on by society’s inability to adapt to the massive change that was going on around them. The gin drinking consumed all aspects of the Londoners’ lives, taking up most of their free time. In our shift to the digital age, Shirky says that our escape, our gin so to speak, has been the sitcom. The Londoners of the 1720’s drank gin; the North Americans of the 20th century watched Gillian’s Island. We watched Cheers, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons. When we came home from work, we turned on the TV, even if we had nothing to watch.

Internet > TV

In 2011, that trend is shifting. When we come home from work, we open the laptop. We don’t even really need to check anything in particular; we just turn it on out of habit. Our Gilligan’s Island no longer exists. The Internet creates diversity by offering personalized content, and for the first time in human history, offers to the masses the ability to produce and contribute to the media, rather than just consume and observe. Increasingly, more people are spending their free time on the Internet, contributing their cognitive surplus to the world wide web. The effect this is having on society is profound, and Shirky looks at how our tools connect us more than ever before, why we contribute and share with strangers, and what it ultimately means for mankind.

The Paradox of Revolution

In one of the book’s strongest sections,  Shirky compares this digital revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries to the 15th century’s transition into a world of print. He tells the story of Gutenberg and his printings of Bibles and indulgences (granted by the Catholic Church after the sinner has confessed and been forgiven), which at first glance seemed like they would further strengthen the “economic and political position of the Church”. Instead, just the opposite happened.

According to Shirky, “This is the paradox of revolution. The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society. So it is today. The communications tools we now have, which a mere decade ago seemed to offer an improvement to the twentieth-century media landscape, are now seen to be rapidly eroding it instead.”

The changes happening in our world as we adjust to the digital world of computers and the connectivity of the Internet are comparable to the changes that occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of the printing press and the subsequent flood of information.

The Spectrum of Internet Use: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic

In chapter 6, Shirky demonstrates how “the organization of sharing has many forms” and points out that “we can identify four essential points on the spectrum”. The four essential points are:

  • Personal sharing: “done among otherwise uncoordinated individuals” (eg. ICanHasCheezburger, most general uses of Facebook etc)
  • Communal sharing: “takes place inside a group of collaborators” (eg.
  • Public sharing: “when a group of collaborators actively wants to create a public resource” (eg. open-source software such as Linux and Apache, WordPress, Wikipedia, etc)
  • Civic sharing: “when a group is actively trying to transform society” (eg. Pink Chaddi, organized protests in Tunisia, Egypt etc.)

Shirky argues that personal sharing is not as beneficial to society:

“We should care more about public and civic value than about personal or communal value because society benefits more from them, but also because public and civic value are harder to create.”

He goes on to he draw from a previous reference to the Invisible College, a group of intellectuals in 17th century England who shared ideas and laid the foundations for modern science. Shirky cleverly lays out the choices the internet offers us:

“The choice we face is this: out of the mass of our shared cognitive surplus, we can create an Invisible University – many Invisible Colleges doing the hard work of creating many kinds of public and civic value – or we can settle for Invisible High School, where we get lolcats but no open source software, fan fiction but no improvement in medical research. The Invisible High School is already widespread, and our ability to participate in ways that reward personal or communal value is in no imminent danger.”

As we move further into this digital age, we have to be aware of how radically different our world is becoming, especially when comparing it to the industrial age our parents and grandparents grew up in. The digital age makes necessary “a huge increase in the number of people paid to think or talk, rather than to produce or transport objects”. As others have said before him, Clay Shirky makes it extremely evident that we are living in a world of bits, not atoms. For instance, in analyzing Napster’s success, Shirky writes that “Napster, like all forms of digital data sharing, took advantage of the fact that music could now be shared like thoughts rather than like objects.”

Music shared like thoughts, rather than like objects. Bits of information, rather than atoms of matter.

This distinction makes a world of difference.

Final Thoughts

Shirky’s book has made me acutely aware of what I’m doing on the Internet. Is it personal, communal, public or civic? Am I contributing my free time, my cognitive surplus, to a greater, collective cause? Perhaps by writing Wikipedia articles or by providing homework help for math students? Or am I laughing at lolcats and looking at people’s photos and commenting on statuses on Facebook?

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky will make you realize just how dramatically the world is changing due to the Internet and how important it is to be aware of the changes in order to influence the future.

I’ve been working my way through a list of books Maria Popova posted last month: seven must-read books on the future of the internet. Since reading Nick Carr’s The Shallows a few months ago, I’ve been extremely aware of the time I spend on the internet, and really try to think about how I use it. Carr’s book actually made me take a step back, use my computer a bit less (for a week or two), and wonder if Nick Carr is right, that maybe the internets are making us stupid. The internet has certainly changed the way I function on a day-to-day basis, as I find myself increasingly attached to both my laptop and Android smartphone.

The Battle: Internet vs Book

I sometimes feel like this guy, with a book replacing the typewriter.

From approximately age seven until eighteen, I had a pretty standard routine before I went to bed. I would lay in bed and read a book until I felt tired, often spending hours tearing through books, staying up until 3 in the morning (on a school night too, nonetheless) to finish whatever I was reading at the time.

Then in 2003, I went to university, and by necessity (the room was tiny) had a computer beside my bed in my dorm room. Ever since, there’s been an increasing amount of nights in which I grapple with the choice of reading a book until I fall asleep, or turning on my computer (or more recently, using my smartphone) to browse the internet. More often, I turn to the computer rather than the book, and I realize that I’m not alone. Other people are going through the same thing, and they’re writing books about it. Reading thought-provoking books (such as those found on Popova’s list) about the internet’s effects has made me extremely self-aware of the changes happening in our world. I have been trying to figure out just what it is that makes me turn to my laptop or smartphone instead of a book. Perhaps it’s fitting that I am coming to a better understanding of why this is… by reading books.

On a sidenote, speaking of smartphones, this month will mark my one-year anniversary of owning a smartphone, Google’s flagship Android phone, the Nexus One. Just eighteen months ago, I was one of those people who said, “I don’t need the internet on my phone! I’m distracted by the net at home enough as it is.” But once you’ve lived with a smartphone, and all the conveniences an instant connection to the internet offers, it’s hard to go back. My phone functions as a newspaper, the yellow pages, an e-reader, a map of the world, a GPS system, a camera, an mp3 player, a restaurant guide, and a connection to social circles through text messages, Facebook, and Twitter. E-mail and Facebook messages are becoming instantaneous, with avid smartphone users expecting a reply within a few hours. What will our world be like in twenty, thirty, or forty years? Will we even read books anymore?

Typing this out is making me realize that I should finish up this post and get back to reading. Next up on the list for me is Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, which after a few chapters, is strengthening my belief that this is a profound shift we’re experiencing as a society, as we move further into the digital age.



In summer 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a poignant and thought-provoking article, asking the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The article explored the idea that the Internet, as it becomes our primary means of accessing information, is affecting our ability to focus on any one task that requires deep concentration, such as reading a book. Carr laments that as he spends more and more time online, he has had trouble reading more than a few pages of a book anymore, and anecdotal evidence from his friends and acquaintances seems to support the hypothesis.

In May of 2010, Carr released a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which explored the ideas of his Google article in much more detail.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (2010)

To fully understand what the Internet is doing to our brains, we must first understand our brains. Carr highlights results from a variety of iconic and more recent studies that illustrate the plasticity of our thinking organs. We see experiments ranging from the severed sensory nerves of monkeys’ hands in the 1960’s (and their brains subsequent ‘rewiring’ in response) to London taxi drivers whose posterior hippocampuses (the “part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial represenations of a person’s surroudings”) were much larger than normal. In short, we see plenty of evidence that the brain can reorganize itself, and is certainly not fixed in one state for all of its adult life.

The Shallows then explores the history of the written word and its explosion due to Gutenberg’s invention, and even further back to the argument between Socrates and Plato concerning the value of the written word. Socrates argued that if we committed all of our thoughts to paper, we would not have to remember anything. How do we know this? From the writings of Plato, of course. The soundwaves of Socrates’ voice, as wise as he was, cannot travel through time like written words can.

With the first half of the book detailing the brain’s plasticity and our species’ history with regards to the accumulation of knowledge, Carr sets up the latter half of the book perfectly, and his ideas might be grossly simplified into something like this:

P1: Experiments of brain plasticity have proven that our brains change over time.
P2: We are using the Internet for an increasing amount of our activities, including work, entertainment and commerce.
P3: The Internet is a medium that encourages distractedness and makes our brains inept at remembering.

C: We are all becoming a lot more dependent upon our digital devices, and in doing so, are increasingly distracted in everything we do, both online and off.

As I was reading this book, I was reminded many times of Mike Judge’s criminally underrated futuristic comedy, Idiocracy. Starring Luke Wilson, the film tells the tale of a mediocre Army librarian who is frozen in a top-secret military experiment. He awakens 500 years in the future to find that he is the world’s smartest man, by far, as confirmed by an IQ test. This seems to contradict the controversial Flynn effect, which shows that IQ has increased quite linearly over time from when it was first measured until now.

Idiocracy, a 2006 Mike Judge film set in 2505.

Somewhere, something went wrong, as the rising IQ scores of the Flynn effect are nowhere to be seen in Mike’s Judge’s depiction of Earth in 2505, which is a greatly dumbed down dystopian version of the world we knew in 2005. The oversaturation of cheap media (in the form of oddly familiar YouTube-esque videos), and rampant anti-intellectualism have resulted in what Wikipedia describes as “a uniformly stupid human society devoid of individual responsibility or consequences”. Adventure ensues, as our protagonist soon meets The President of the United States of America, who just so happens to be a former porn star and professional wrestler named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. This zany, satirical look at the future certainly has its moments, and offers a bleary look into our dumbed down future.

Carr’s book is a giant caution sign on the side of the road that we ride into the increasingly digital future. The caution sign might be too far behind us already, as we’ve blazed ahead and rewired our minds to think like computers – logical, task-switching, and distracted at every second of the day. If people in their 30’s and 40’s (who may have had the Internet for approximately 25-40% of their life times) are experiencing these changes in their brains, imagine the effect the Internet is having on our youth. The Net Generation is defined to be those who have grown up with the Net for more than half their lives. There are still others who have had Internet for 100% of their life times. Imagine that, never knowing a world without the Internet. Imagine explaining to your grandchildren that you grew up in a time that didn’t have the Internet, let alone the information organizing superpower known as Google.

Will we look back at this period of transition from a print to digital culture and see it as being as momentous as the shift from an oral culture to a print culture? What would Socrates have thought? Have we become lesser human beings, inextricably tied to the addictive external memories of our computers and mobile phones?

Could it be that George W. Bush’s infamous “the Internets” quote was just a sign of the stupidness to come? Perhaps Bush was ahead of his time. Perhaps the Flynn effect is about to come to a crashing halt, as IQs peak, or maybe they already have. Could the greatest learning tool ever created be so useful that we forget how to think as we use it?