TED Talk – Clay Shirky, “How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World”

TED Talk – Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, an American writer who specializes in Internet communications theories, speaks in this TED Talk of the great capacity the Internet has given us, the consumers, to become creators.

Shirky beforehand makes it clear that, in his opinion, people were not just couch potatoes because they wanted to be; it was just their only option in the day when television was the bulk of the mass media available.

Shirky goes on to talk about a story in which two programmers programmed a website called Ushahidi for use during violent hostilities in Kenya, to keep the public informed of the developments and events that were going on in the various geographical locations, automatically mapping and reporting any event info sent in. The site was effective enough that the programmers turned it into a site format, and now the same event mapping service has been applied to a wide variety of situations, from snow clearing in major cities to disaster statistics and advisories in the Haiti earthquakes.

The next topic of discussion was somewhat unexpected. Lolcats took the screen. Shirky used these two things as examples of how the Internet and electronic media have transformed the way we participate in the world around us, describing the first, more constructive and charitable use of the internet as “civic” creation, and the second, recreational and less-useful application of the Internet’s creative capabilities as “communal” creation.

The gist of what he said was profound, and speaks volumes of our nature as human beings. Whereas in the time of television and radio, we were mostly consumers with limited creative capabilities, the advent of electronic media, the Internet, and advanced digital coding have made it possible for us to be more than only consumers. Now we are sharers and, most intriguing of all, creators.

The technology of the Internet has given every member of humanity with Internet access the potential to become a creator. Our ability to create was previously limited to the physical world around us, but now we can create software that does incredible things to the world around us…or we can make lolcat pictures.

That’s where it gets tricky. Lolcat makers are still creators. They’re just silly ones. Their creation has little to no value to society, and is just a social creation. That’s why Shirky calls them a communal creation, because they are for a specific community and don’t serve any purpose to anyone else. The makers of Ushihida, on the other hand, created something that served their community, but now also serves anyone else in all the world who needs a similar service. Shirky called this civic creation because it now serves as a civil service to all the world.

Communal creation is all well and good, but I agree with Shirky in that when we as a society can motivate and reward civic creation appropriately, giving it the prominence it deserves, then our surplus of cognition, the great and largely untapped creative potential of the mass of the human race, will change our world.

What do you create? Do you feel it’s a communal, or a civic creation?


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