Bad things could happen

Farhad Manjoo New York Times review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus relies on the argument I hear a lot in privacy circles: Bad things could happen.

Shirky imagines what good things people could do if they watched less TV and created more stuff together (2,000 Wikipedias bloom). Manjoo yes-buts him:

Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive; everyone here seems to be using the Internet to do such good things.

Yet it seems obvious that not everything — and perhaps not even most things — that we produce together online will be as heartwarming as a charity or as valuable as Wikipedia. Other examples of Internet-abetted collaborative endeavors include the “birthers,” Chinese hacker collectives and the worldwide jihadi movement. In this way a “cognitive surplus” is much like a budgetary surplus — having one doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll spend it well. You could give up your time at the TV to do good things or bad; most likely you’ll do both.

Well, yes, Shirky’s examples are of good things because he’s trying to persuade people to consider new behaviors and thus he is arguing their benefits. Buy the punch line, buy the joke. In Manjoo’s school, Jim Fixx should have written running books leading off by arguing that it could give you skin cancer to be outside that much and it will wreck your knees and cars could hit you and dogs could bite you and you look silly in shorts and, oh, yes, you could drop dead of a heart attack. Feel like a run? C’mon! Get up off that couch! Turn off that TV, now!

As he tries to find his critical yes-but, Manjoo is betraying more about his thinking than Shirky’s. His is a case of classical (if you’ll forgive me that but it’s become a cliché if not classical) internet skepticism, which is really anti-populist fear of a loss of centralized control. Manjoo doesn’t trust people — “perhaps even most” people — to use their time wisely. That’s the snobbery I hear against the internet and publicness and what the public does with the internet.

So the next necessary question to such a critic needs to be: Yeah, and…? What is it you expect we should do then? The only logical answer in this context is that Manjoo wants people to keep watching TV in case they would otherwise do bad things (and he gets to define bad). So whether he knows it or not, he becomes Big Brother and TV is the opiate of his masses. Put down that remote control, now. Back away from the mouse. Just sit and watch media. That’s what it’s there for. Hush now.

  • This pattern has driven me nuts for years, but you cannot win, Jeff. There is no reply I know of that gets past the auto-respond of the journalist in question, which is, “So you want us to be cheerleaders for the Internet, then? I’m sorry, but that’s not my job. My job is to point out the problems, too. I understand that this upsets some people, and apparently you are one of them. Comes with the territory. But I am gonna keep on keeping on in my skepticism because I was born to doubt, etc. etc….” I’ve never seen the discussion of this particular point advance past that marker.

    • Good point Jay. I’m happy that there’s people out there being skeptical (maybe some are too skeptical). They keep the dreamers who are optimistic (maybe too optimistic) in check. We need both, but I’m also not happy that people use fear as a tool to ‘manipulate’ the general public.

    • Drew Herrick

      Preempt their arguments? If this ‘unified journalist skepticism’ is that predictable/automatic then incorporate it, rebut it and force them to add some semblance of value.

      Granted it takes additional space, effort and, in many cases, may distract from the overall argument BUT maybe a few of the skeptics will legitimately engage the argument.

    • Andy Freeman

      > “So you want us to be cheerleaders for the Internet, then? I’m sorry, but that’s not my job.”

      However, it is apparently their job to be cheerleaders for many other things. After all, their skepticism isn’t universal – it’s reserved for certain things. And since they tell us that they’d be cheerleading if they weren’t being skeptical ….

      For some reason they don’t like it when you take their words seriously. They seem to think that crafting a grammatically correct sentence means that they’re correct.

    • LOGGER

      “The library, I believe, is the last of our public institutions
      to which you can go without credentials.
      You don’t even need the sticker on your windshield
      that you need to get into the public beach.
      All you need is the willingness to read.”
      — Harry Golden

      Some beach. Some problems are bigger than others.

  • Perversely, the culture of fear that is perpetuated by a resistance to what possible good can come from technology sits well alongside the Washington Post’s “National Security Inc.” don’t you think?

  • Phil Wolff

    The Yes, But reviewer misses the point. Shirky isn’t saying we “should” do something we can close to do or not do. He is describing a phenomenon that exists, like it or not. So the reviewer’s failure is not taking the next step. Ask how governance works best in these large systems. Ask how the long tail of this overwhelming force may be brought provides insights into our civilizations’ problems. Ask how we can better rethink our institutions so they employ these forces instead of opposing or ignoring them. Shirky is telling of a great power unleashed from it’s bottle. An imaginative reviewer would have looked further than trying to rebottle it.

    • Phil, you didn’t read the review, only Jeff’s miscasting of it. Nowhere in my piece do I say Shirky is saying we “should” do something, or that we can choose whether or not to engage with the Internet. I don’t say we should or can rebottle it. That’s made up.

  • Rick

    The core culture of the internet is one of creativity. That is not to say the internet could not be used for destructive of controlling purposes.

    The issue of privacy you are struggling with is, should the core people creating the internet allow the old control structure to use the internet as simply the latest tool to drool the masses along, or should that core break the shackles of the the old world and help to awaken our sleeping brethren. Will it be the blue pill or the red pill. The red pill will collapse the ancient power structure by exposing the wizard behind the curtain and giving the controls over to the individual.

  • Jeff, first, you’re willfully misreading and misrepresenting what I wrote. I didn’t express any fear of a loss of control, nor did I ask people — nor does it follow “logically” that I want people — to go back to watching TV and forget about the Internet. I don’t think that’s possible, and I don’t think it would be a good thing.

    I think you’re shortchanging the revolution. Shirky’s argument is that the Internet has helped free us from the bonds of TV to do a lot of creative things together. You’re saying I don’t “trust people” to use that surplus “wisely.” I think you don’t trust people to use these powers fully.

    I trust people to use these technologies to indulge the vast and astonishing range of human impulses and desires, and to produce things that will amaze, inspire, embarrass, terrify, enrich, ruin, and educate us — all at the same time. You seem not to; instead, you trust that we’ll all be using it “wisely.”

    That’s obviously wrong. Your theory misunderstands both the Internet and the nature of revolutions. We’re talking about forces that are by nature unpredictable, whose outcomes we’re all trying to grasp. It is not any more snobbish to consider that bad things could happen on the Web than it is snobbish to consider that bad things could happen from GMO, CDOs, tax cuts, school vouchers, or decoding the human genome. Big things have consequences, in other words. If you really believe, as you suggest you do, that a technology as awesome as the Internet will lead only to positive, “wise” uses, then the Internet you’re on must be a lot smaller and less interesting than the one I’m on.

    But I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Instead what you seem to be saying is, Sure, bad things could happen — so what? As you say, “What is it you expect we should do then?”

    You really mean that? That seems like a pedestrian question to me. The answer is obvious: We figure out what to do about the bad things. This is how civic debate works — we talk about the good and bad things that could happen out of a change in society, we investigate possible remedies for the bad things, we decide whether those potential remedies are worth the cost, we look at whether the advantages of the proposed change in society outweigh the bad things, etc. In other words, we discuss the potential changes in society in a thorough, meaningful, intelligent way.

    I think we get nowhere by ignoring the bad things that could happen, just as we get nowhere by ignoring the good things that could happen. That kind of discussion — focusing only on the positive, the wise — is the kind of debate I expect of cable TV. And remember, we’re turning that off.

    • *I* am shortchanging the revolution? Oh, my, that’s the first time I’ve been accused of that. Sorry, but I’m the card-carrying triumphalist here.

      I didn’t say for a second that the change would all lead to wise uses of the time. You are the one misreading and misrepresenting me and my words are right above.

      Jay Rosen hit the nail on the head, I think: You’re engaging in a rhetorical, critical cliché: You summarize Shirky and then have to come up with a yes-but closer and that was the obvious one: Bad things could happen.

      Well, no shit they could. Of course, they could. They always can. Stipulated, Mr. critic.

      And so you then are the one forced to answer the question I pose: “Yeah, and…?” And, what, Farhad? What is it you expect to do about this? Just catalogue the bad things that *could* happen? I think that’s happening in spades already. Clay is the counterweight to that in the public discussion. He provides value in that discussion. You provide ballast. I think that’s already in oversupply.

      I’m amused when critics get oversensitive about their criticism. Having been one myself, I suggest that you are opening yourself up for debate and criticism and you’re not taking it well. Chill. Go watch some TV. It will calm you.

      • Jeff, I’m not not taking it well (though I’m glad you’re amused by the fact I’m responding). I like to respond to criticism, and I do it all the time when I write online. I consider this one of the main advantages of the Web as opposed to print. I’m sorry you see a response as thin-skinnedness rather than what it is — a serious effort to respond to and engage in your argument.

        And it’s quite odd that you take my willingness to respond as a sign that I need to calm down and watch TV, considering that Clay Shirky’s whole point is that we ought to engage with media. (I’m going to assume that you’re joking there.)

        Here’s what you said: “Manjoo doesn’t trust people … to use their time wisely. That’s the snobbery I hear against the internet and publicness and what the public does with the internet.”

        The obvious implication there is that Jeff Jarvis *does* trust people to use their time wisely. If you’re conceding, now, that Jeff Jarvis also doesn’t trust people to use their time wisely then I don’t see why you responded at all.

        As to the “Yeah, and” question. Well, I answered that: “We figure out what to do about the bad things.” Shirky’s book is part of a larger discussion about the changes that the Internet will engender in society. Not all those changes are good. I believe we should discuss both sides of the ledger.

        Is it true that there’s too much discussion about the bad stuff and not enough about the good stuff? I don’t know. I don’t have the same tools you do to measure whether skepticism is in oversupply, and whether we need more enthusiasm. My point had to do with a single book, not the media landscape: I think Shirky’s book would have been more interesting had it grappled with the totality of the changes wrought by the forces he describes, not just the positive ones.

        You disagree, and that’s fine. But it seems unreasonable to me to attribute our disagreement to my being afraid of a loss of centralized control and wishing that everyone went back to watching TV. That’s not what I asked for.

        • Farhad,

          I think it’s wonderful you’re responding. Flattered you choose to do it here; I suspect you’ll have opportunities elsewhere. But, yes, I did think it rather thin-skinned.

          I don’t understand at all your logic that I don’t trust the people. I do. See my response to Brad. Whether I have trusted you to give a good review of Clay’s book, well, I leave it to others to add up the tote board.

          But now I think we are getting to where our disagreement lies. Is there too much discussion about the bad stuff and not enough about the good stuff? Yes, I certainly think there is. I hear internet naysayers and worriers and fearmongers and institutional protectors every day (and I’d think you would, too, working in this new land). As Brian Frank says below, I want to see more people moving in making nice new homes. Clay’s giving them floor plans.

          Now I’m working on a book about privacy and publicness. They are not binary. I like privacy, too. I think it needs to be protected. But I think we have FAR too much talk about the dangers and fears and worries about privacy with far too little specificity about the damage and much, much too little talk about the opportunities that now lie in publicness — in the public taking over our world (and, yes, that springs from a necessary populism).

          As we both will agree, the world is changing radically. There are two possible responses to that: To curse the wind and try to stop it or to find the opportunity in it. I start with a default of opportunity. Can the wind blow down trees and houses? Of course, it can. We all know that. We will, indeed, worry about those things and create protections against such damage where it can be foreseen. So, yes, foreseeing it, we will also agree, is good. But I don’t think Clay had to deliver that, because we have plenty of that already. That wouldn’t be terribly constructive to his ends. He’s not suggesting how to build a wall around the new world, not yet. He’s suggesting how to build it.

          Christopher Columbus didn’t have a good map. He went anyway.

        • Surely there are more than two possible responses to the world changing radically? If you see all conversation about the Internet in those kinds of binary terms, you’re going to end up having a lot of really pointless arguments.

    • It’s certainly worth talking about risks, but the review presents them as if there’s going to be a vote — i.e. the way we decide democratically about how to spend budget surpluses. The decision people have to make is how they’re going to use their own cognitive surplus…

      If the Internet is in fact a bad neighborhood, then the best way to clean it up would be for more people to move here and support the groups trying to make it better. The longer we hang around doubting and sighing about the shady parts and whatever else might go wrong, the longer it will take to realize the benefits and address the evils.

      • What he says. Cue applause.

      • Actually Clay is quite clear in the book that it is about more than just people choosing how to use their own cognitive surplus. We’ve always had the ability to choose what to do with our free time. What’s new is the ability to combine our free time and the effect that is having on our culture.

        Group behaviour is not the same as individual behaviour. The big changes that are coming about as a result of cognitive surplus are not a result of individual decisions, but as a result of groups decisions. They are being made in different cultural contexts created by membership of online groups.

        I think Cognitive Surplus is a really great book. I disagree wholeheartedly with the criticisms in the review and I think there was an element of “yes, but” in the way it was written. However, I think Manjoo’s responses here have been stronger and dismissing his points as though he is saying that there should be no Internet is quite reactionary.

  • @Jeff, @Jay: I think you’re both seriously mis-representing Farhad’s case. I worked with him at Wired — you know, back when it chronicled the emerging technological revolution — and he was then (as he is now) an astute watcher of this culture. Before you both cast stone at him — which you have done — I would suggest doing what you demand of others, which is understanding the context of his argument.

    Instead, you seem to do what Jeff has criticized Farhad for — you have pushed your own thinking as his.

    • Then you tell me what the logical extension of his criticism of Shirky is. You answer the question he doesn’t: “Yeah, and…?”

      • Jeff, that is YOUR logical extension. That isn’t Farhad’s point. Criticism demands you look objectively at a position. Shirky is a business consultant at the heart of his writing and while I admire some of his work, it’s rarely nuanced enough for me — who has been working with technology for two decades — to feel good about. It feels “packaged” for the masses.

        As does your “Yeah, and” question. That’s not the point of this. Farhad’s point — if I can speak for my friend — is about correlation and causation. Simply “freeing” up time won’t necessarily translate into human changing events. Certainly there will be some — but the griefers who make up part of the Net culture will certainly work on more subversive things as well.

        Why is that point confounding? Hell, Bartle made exactly the same argument — that all, or even most, people will act “rationally” — 20 years ago in one of the most important papers about how people play games in networked culture. A paper that has driven game development and design in open/sandbox environments, that has informed how we view and create “interactive” environments. (Bartle’s work, of course, mirrors what we know of Game Theory and digital environments as well.)

        Anyway: the point is that I can’t answer your question because I think your question is wrong and simplistic in nature. I think it misses the larger point Farhad is making.

        Which of course doesn’t make my analysis true (although Farhad might say True Enough). Merely that the issue, I don’t think, is exactly as you have framed it.

      • “Packaged for ‘the masses'” is a bad thing, eh? I think that’s revealing. You’re putting yourself over Clay based on what? You worked in technology longer? He has business sense? You’re putting yourself over the public. They’re just masses. Well, they never have been and it’s the internet that breaks them free of those shackles. (See, Farhad, I am a net triumphalist.)

        Farhad is asking a rhetorical question — he wants Clay to list all the bad things that could happen. “”…while making a convincing case for the social revolution that could come from our liberation from TV, Shirky seems to be telling just half the story. Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive….” But the answer to that rhetorical question is itself rhetorical: Well, this and that could happen. Farhad himself says it is “obvious” that not everything will be “heartwarming.” If it’s obvious, why say it?

        You want “objectivity;” Farhad wants balance: This much good and this much bad? That’s like faux journalistic balance (back to Jay’s point): one from column a and one from column b will add up to truth. One good and one bad is the full story.

        But in that, Farhad (and apparently you, who stand above the masses) is essentially a humanistic pessimist. He says that “not everything — perhaps not even most things” that people do with their time will be good. Well, I disagree; I have more faith in the people formerly known as masses. That’s why I believe in democracy, free markets, education, journalism, reform religion, and art. That’s why I think Clay’s exploration of what they “could” do with their freed up time and resource is ennobling.

        On the other side of the Gutenberg Parenthesis (see my post below), there were plenty who thought that books and reading were being put in incapable hands. Revolutions were fought over that freedom. Now, we don’t have to fight the revolution of respect for the public. We just can just do what we want to do, whether you and Fahrad think that’s good or bad, then you’ll judge in time. I think Clay is showing enlightening possibilities for good use of the time and I think that’s enough for a book: a full story.

        If it’s not, as Farhad says, then I think he has to finish the story himself. Yeah, and…?

    • Jeff: I don’t even really know how to respond. Your response has me punching straw me you have created. (Here would be a time that Google Wave would be – I think – more productive.) I was responding to what I still believe is a mis-characterization of Farhad’s point + injecting your ideas instead of responding to what Farhad wrote (and the ideas he’s explored throughout his career around these subjects.)

      My point about Clay’s work is that he – like other business-type writers – make a living off simplifing complicated points into unrealistic ideas that are easily consume-able. Is that bad? Of course not. It certainly helps people understand complicated issues. But it’s not above discussion particularly by those who have an understanding of the complexities.

      (And the reality is that I do have some expertise in this area. I’m not Berners-Lee, but I’m not unfamiliar with creating these types of systems. I’ve spent some time both writing about and building systems, I feel like I am one of those people, hence my statement about my experience in this area. In fact, Clay does the same thing below in his response – yet that seems okay with you.

      As you well know, we must justify our expertise. Particularly in places where reputations may NOT precede. My intention wasn’t place myself above people, Jeff, I suspect that you know that. Which makes your statement about my argument seem petty – although maybe you honestly believe that I did that, which undermines your point that you believe the best in people…but I digress)

      And I guess I am still grasping to understand your point about Farhad’s piece bringing up the potential downsides. The simple fact is the science — the research — suggests these negatives happen and can’t be ignored. So why not bring them up? (Which is why your “Yeah, and…” feels so lightweight. The “Yeah and” is that of course this should be discussed because everything we know about these things suggests it will happen.)

      But it sure would make for an interesting discussion over coffee if we all ever end up in the same place.

  • I didn’t say a word about Farhad’s case. I identified a pattern I have seen in exchanges of this type. They devolve into arguments about the the value of skepticism.

  • Ramon Bez

    I’m 100% with Jarvis and Shirky on this one. The whole point of the internet is the balance of power. In general terms, if the Many will have as much power or more than the Few, how can that be a bad thing? Unless you trust people will shoot themselves on the foot? A few can do that yeah, but that’s not representative enough to discard a revolution or even to “buts” on it.

  • The key sentence in Farhad’s review (IMHO) is: “The bigger problem is that … Shirky seems to be telling just half the story. ” That leads into his point that a “cognitive surplus” is much like a budgetary surplus. But I thought that was a point that Shirky handled really well (I own Shirky’s book) when he said that it takes only a small percentage of the time Americans spend watching TV commercials to build Wikipedia.

    He covers what Farhad calls “the other half” of the story and even points out that the split is nowhere near 50-50, it’s more like 90-0 or 96-4. And he relates that back to the Gutenberg printing press – that we had printed pornography, and then we got scientific journals. So I see where Jeff’s coming from with his critique, but I’d say that Farhad seems to be posing a rhetorical question which Clay already answered, in detail.

    So to pick up on Brad KIng’s point – what IS the context of Farhad’s criticism of Clay’s book?

  • The People

    Jay Rosen: “But I am gonna keep on keeping on…”

    Jeff Jarvis: “Well, no shit they could.”

    Pseudo-academics are funny when they try to talk like us plain folk.

  • Normal person

    Seems like Farhad was making an almost techinical point, that Clay’s book was more a rallying cry than an analytical piece. The latter is expected to have more balance. This does not have to be taken as an ethical or emotive statement, simply a statement. I’m surprised at Jeff, who I had an enormous amount of respect for, for conflating (it seems almost wilfully) the two.
    And my answer to ‘yeah, and… – invest in education around default settings for a start.”

    • Farhad says that Clay tells “half the story.” I’d say that’s rather a condemnation of the book, not a description. Farhad could just as easily have said what concerns *him*, which is certainly legit in a review: “Here are my worries.” But he’s trying to make his worries Clay’s and he’s marking him down for not being worried. Again, that’s not a description, that’s a cut.

    • And I should add that I”m not saying this so much in defense of Clay’s book — full disclosure: I was invited to and did submit a blurb for it; I think there are legit criticisms to be made. I’m, of course, fine with Farhad having his criticism. I’m saying that his yes-but is, I think, inappropriate to this book (whatever you label it) and, again, I think it says more about Farhad (his concerns, his rhetoric) than about Clay’s book.

      • Normal person

        Fair point. It does seem that a celebration of creativity, without some serious consideration of it’s darker half is just calling out for someone to temper the triumphalism somewhat; but sure I guess it could have been dressed more subjectively.
        PS:excuse the double post below – I’m not sure how that happened.

  • Normal person

    Seems like Farhad was making an almost technical point. Clay’s piece was a rallying cry, not an analytical one. The latter is expected to have some balance and objectivity. Stating this in itself is neither a judgement for, nor against, such a rallying cry – it is merely a statement. I’m a little surprised that Jeff, who I have a lot of respect for, is conflating (seemingly wilfully) the two. PS: my answer to “yeah, and..” is – give us mandatory education in default settings.

  • [Clay sent this response to me — Jarvis, that is — in email as he’s away and has limited bandwidth of various definitions. I’m just cutting and pasting…]

    First, let me say that a book review is really an unstable mix of two
    genres — the reviewer’s conversation with the author, and the
    reviewer’s assessment of the book on behalf of the reader. In the
    latter, assessment mode, Manjoo’s review seems to me to correctly
    describe something about _Cognitive Surplus_, namely that I start with
    a descriptive logic — as one of your commenters noted, these changes
    are happening in the world — but finish with an aspirational logic —
    we could create considerable civic value if we reward coordinated
    voluntary participation in sufficiently imaginative ways.

    Manjoo’s observation about this transition — that I assume increased
    participation to be a net positive for society — is also correct.
    Taken as an assessment about a particular piece of writing, I read
    Manjoo as saying that I was not sufficiently engaging on this point to
    bring skeptical readers along.

    This is a criticism I take seriously, and much as I like the Jim Fixx
    analogy, I don’t think Manjoo can be faulted for criticising the book
    on this axis. He himself is skeptical that this form of freedom is a
    net positive, and I didn’t convince him otherwise; his view is a
    legitimate proxy for similarly skeptical readers.

    That having been said, I also agree with your broader point, namely
    that the review, considered instead as his reply to me, does indeed
    seem to be driven by anti-populist horror. I take the source of his
    skepticism to be that of the three communicative rights guaranteed to
    US citizens, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are best
    limited to elite members of society.

    To take one example, his addition of the Birthers as an example of one
    of the negative uses of our cognitive surplus looks like a lament for
    days when political speech was restricted to mainstream views because
    the ability to publicly express any views at all was technologically
    limited to mainstream publishers.

    As someone who grew up in a casually racist environment, I am grateful
    that there is a way for those people to place their views out in the
    open; seeing even some Tea Party organizers saying “Those Birther
    views are unacceptable” seems to me to be one of the most hopeful
    changes in the US political scene since the election of Obama, and not
    the kind of thing that would have happened had those views circulated
    only among fellow racists, as they used to, rather than out in public,
    as they do today.

    As you note, any expansive possibility for communication _always_
    carries downsides — the Nazis marched in Skokie long before the Web
    — and, as Jay Rosen notes, that means there is always a way to
    trigger a kind of timidity, by implying that good and bad changes are
    running neck and neck.

    When it comes to new kinds of online participation, I think this idea
    is ridiculous, but I didn’t spend enough time in _Cognitive Surplus_
    explaining _why_ I think it is ridiculous, mainly because, until this
    month, I had no idea how many of our fellow thinkers-about-media
    were willing to believe that massive increases in freedom of the press
    and of assembly could be a bad idea.

    • “The answer for bad speech is more speech” -Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

      • robin

        thank you, you read my mind, though now i *have* to remember the author!

  • Howard Rheingold

    I don’t think it’s nitpicking to point out the radical difference between collectivism and collective action: collectivism is coerced and centrally controlled; collective action is voluntary and control is distributed. Collectivism — forcing people to do things together for their own good — won a deservedly bad reputation in the 20th century. It’s a loaded word. Collective action can be beneficial or destructive. The Web is collective action. Markets involve collective action. A lynch mob is collective action.

    • Thanks, Howard. That was bugging me and I didn’t know how to express it so well.

  • Krishna


    Good job distilling the original review into a few sentences :-). Mr Manjoo’s review was more an opinion piece than a valid critique of Clay’s book. It starts by clubbing together Clay with a person who is an “Onion joke” and then reminding the readers that bad things can happen if people get off their couches and do something – rather than passively consume media and entertainment.

    The bad people Mr Manjoo mentions in his review, including Jihadi’s are highly motivated and are able to get so much done precisely because there are not watching TV. Given Clay’s audience and those who follow his work, I am sure the book will motivate and inspire the right people to take action and create things that are of great value.


  • Actually the Birthers are correct. Obama was born in the Kingdom of Hawai’i, which some Native Hawai’ians will be happy to tell you is not a legitimate part of the U.S. then again, some people would say the same thing about Bush and the Republic of Texas (if he were actually born there.)

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan

    It’s unfair and unfounded to accuse honest critics of anti-populism. And I say that as a huge fan of Clay and his two books.

    Farhad’s review is not the one I would have written. But no matter. He had a good point to make, even if he made it late and perhaps indelicately.

    Please don’t assign motives to people who merely want to expand the discussion and debate. These issues are far more interesting and complex than pro- or anti-Internet or pro- or anti-populist.

    That said, one would have to ignore a decade of Farhad’s writing to assign him labels such as these. He is a serious thinker who takes both technology and its consequences seriously. That’s not to say I agree with him about everything. He’s almost completely wrong about privacy, for instance. But no matter.

    This, IMHO, is Farhad’s point:

    “In this way a ‘cognitive surplus’ is much like a budgetary surplus — having one doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll spend it well.”

    And it’s an IMPORTANT point. The stuff Clay does not discuss is not nearly as important as the fact that few of us have taken the qualitative issue seriously. Jay Rosen, of course, has been seriously engaging with this question since the early days of Slashdot. But the rest of us have a hard time articulating the problem. I share Farhad’s concern that Clay does not engage this question sufficiently in Cognitive Surplus.

    To push to conversation forward, in ways I think Clay is well poised to do in the near future:

    What can we do as users, critics, and developers of information technology to enhance the liberal and humanistic consequences of information technology and mitigate the negative externalities? This is not a facile, snarky question. It does not demand hiding in the hills, off the grid. It involves no Red baiting.

    Perhaps the answer is “nothing.” Perhaps the answer is “build more gizmos.” I don’t have an answer. But smarter people than myself should be asking the question.

    Serious technology writers are beginning to engage with this question. But the general tone of this debate, as framed on this page, do not help.

    • That’s rather PC, telling me what I can and cannot say. I do, indeed, think it’s important to understand what Farhad is saying about his own worldview — and how it affects what he says about Clay’s and how it, as Rosen says, illustrates pressthink — and that, through logical extension, is where I came out.

      Yes, Siva, bad things can happen. Bad things do happen. But are you also saying that it is incumbent on an author exploring a new topic to always catalogue all the bad things that could happen? I don’t think so.

      I think Clay gave his audience credit for understanding as obvious that bad things could happen. Idle hands. Devil’s playground, You know. As he says, he also thought he could give his audience credit for understanding that “massive increases in freedom of the press and of assembly” (to state his negative in a positive) were a good thing.

      I think you do push to the next level in your question of design: How could systems be designed to work better? But that’s not the book he wrote. Maybe you should. Maybe Farhad should. That would be more constructive and productive than merely saying that bad possibilities should be catalogued. If you have answers to how to solve this, share. I don’t yet. I don’t know whether Clay does. But I wouldn’t have wanted that to stop him from writing the book at this point in time.

      I”ll warn you that in my book, I do deal with bad things that could happen but not in the depth, I’ll wager, that you’ll want. That’s because I think there are many — plenty — of people concentrating on those bad things and I think we need to bring possibilities, opportunities, and benefits into the discussion and that’s what I’ll concentrate much of my effort on.

      If you insist that I have to balance good things that could happen with bad things that could happen, well, that may not be a reflection of the truth; it’s more a reflection, again, of the faux balance worldview media have trained into us. That, too, was part of my point in my reaction to Farhad but Jay said it better than I did.

      • Siva Vaidhyanathan

        No one said anything about “balance.” That’s your thing. That’s not what Farhad urged. That’s not what I proposed. You made that up. Farhad was calling for a deeper, more multifaceted account of the changes that Clay describes. He accused Clay of shorting analysis in favor of advocacy.

        As I said, I don’t have a big problem with Clay’s book on that ground. I repeat, I AGREE WITH CLAY and value his book greatly.

        I have a problem with all the labeling and name-calling you pushed on Farhad. That was unfair and unwarranted. His review was reasonable. I don’t agree with it.

        All I am doing it trying to push the conversation beyond your incessant name-calling and shallow analysis. If Farhad is wrong, it’s not because it’s “classic Internet skepticism,” as if that matters at all. Arguments should be engaged on their merits and demerits, not swept away because they seem to echo some imaginary team of skeptics.

        Since when is criticism and debate “telling me what I can and cannot say”? Didn’t you criticize Farhad? Were you telling him what he can and cannot say? No.

        But I do wish you would approach critics of your and other work with more nuance and complexity, even when they fail to in their work.

        • Siva, it’s not name-calling. It’s disagreement. You’re the one getting emotional. Farhad went and cooked dinner.

          Where you see nuance, I see obviousness (and why be obvious?).

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan

    BTW, Jeff. Bad Things Have Happened. That’s the privacy problem. And it’s ain’t trivial either.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I guess I’d have to read Shirky’s book to completely understand it, but it does seem like he’s equating TV as an unproductive use of time and the internet as a productive use of time (or at least potentially productive use of time), and I don’t think either statement is true at all.

    For what it’s worth (as you probably know by now), I hate pseudo-scientific buzzwords like “cognitive surplus.” Doesn’t he just mean “spare time?” If we watch less TV, we’ll have more spare time to build wikipedia? When I see a book title like that my BS meter is pinned in the red zone.

    Okay, I doubt that’s true, and what about these sources that say we’re watching more TV than ever? (I know you hate Nicholas Carr, but he says TV viewing has not decrease — among many other interesting things — do you have a response to that?)

  • TV isn’t all a wasteland, I’m watching a Baseball game as I read this post.

    On Wikipedia Protestants delete Catholics and Conservatives are constantly rewriting history because they can.

  • AJ Mollo

    The more useful a thing or an idea is, the more it will be used. ‘Twas ever thus! The concepts underlying “Cognitive Surplus” are wonderfully utilitarian, and the examples are enlightening. The book is a terrific eye-opener for readers, watchers, web-surfers. Read and wonder, I say.

  • Pingback: In Defense of Clay Shirky | Media and Tech()

  • Eric Gauvin

    But seriously, is this how you spend your “cognitive surplus” by psychoanalyzing the subtle nuances of Manjoo’s review to defend a friend’s book that doesn’t even need defending? Clay Shirky’s books appear to be selling like hotcakes. Farhad Manjoo writes for the NYT and his article was interesting and well-written. No big deal. As you often say, “get over it.”

    Perhaps the next book by an internet prognosticator will be called “There Goes Everybody” because I think Shirky has hit a nerve with his idea of a “spare time revolution.” The next big trend to watch is selective disconnection.

  • I’m reading Shirky’s book now and I know what Manjoo means when he says that the examples of collective action are all positive. but I agree with both Jay Rosen and Jeff that Majoo’s objections bog down in a kind of ritual skepticism or faux balance so commonly used in Journalism – often to mask quite strong opinion. In this case Jeff’s chiding Majoo for wanting us to continue our great TV binge strikes a chord for me.

    I don’t think Shirky necessarily needs to point out the negatives because he is trying to spot emergent structures in what McLuhan would call a New Media Environment. That’s what I take Jeff to mean when he says “Clay is giving them floor plans.” At the level of structure he is talking about how to accomplish things previously difficult or impossible using old structures. While I think there is always loss in changing environments and that it is necessary to recognize and acknowledge loss, even mourn it, it is also necessary to see and act on the opportunities. When it comes to seeing the opportunities I think Clay’s work is special.

  • Too funny, but so true about opiate for the masses. People really dont realize how much they are lulled in to a zombie like state by watching so much TV.