Cognitive Surplus

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A concept and a book


"Clay Shirky came up with a word that solves the problem of explaining the essence of Crowdsourcing: “cognitive surplus”. This is the unused potential of the minds of 6,7 billion people. Social media is unlocking this potential. Technology allows us to be creative and productive instead of consumptive." [1]


Clay Shirky:

"“So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

It’s also become my motto, when people ask me what we’re doing–and when I say “we” I mean the larger society trying to figure out how to deploy this cognitive surplus, but I also mean we, especially, the people in this room, the people who are working hammer and tongs at figuring out the next good idea. From now on, that’s what I’m going to tell them: We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I’m betting the answer is yes." (

Generative Abundance

By Megan Garber:

"Shirky may be a technologist and a pragmatist and, in the best sense, a futurist; what gives his thinking its unique verve, though, is that he also thinks like an economist. To read his work is to be presented with a world defined by the relationships it contains: the exchanges it fosters, the negotiations it demands, the tugs and torques of transaction. In the Shirkian vision of our information economy, supply-and-demand, scarcity-and-abundance, and similar polar pairings aren’t merely frames for coaxing complex realities into bite-sized specimens of simplicity; they’re very real tensions that, in their polarity, act as characters in the epic poem of everyday life.

In Cognitive Surplus, as in Here Comes Everybody, the protagonist is abundance itself. Size, you know, matters. And, more specifically, the more matters: The more people we have participating in media, and the more people we have consuming it — and the more people we have, in particular, creating it — the better. Not because bigger is implicitly better than the alternative compact, but because abundance changes the value proposition of media as a resource. “Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance,” Shirky points out, “because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change.” But “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.”

Cognitive Surplus, in other words — the book, and the concept it’s named for — pivots on paradox: The more abundant our media, the less specific value we’ll place on it, and, therefore, the more generally valuable it will become. We have to be willing to waste our informational resources in order to preserve them. If you love something…set it free." (


Book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Clay Shirky. The Penguin Press, 2010

Review by Evgeny Morozov:


"the Internet will not automatically preserve—never mind improve—the health of democratic politics. Yes, a wired future might look good for democracy if some of the social functions currently performed by traditional media are taken up by new Internet projects. But that outcome needs to be demonstrated—perhaps constructively aimed at—rather than assumed. For populists such as Shirky, the need for considered political commitment does not even merit discussion. The triathlon must go on, even if the athletes become brainwashed and bigoted."


"The main argument of Cognitive Surplus rests on a striking analogy. Just as gin helped the British to smooth out the brutal consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the Internet is helping us to deal more constructively with the abundance of free time generated by modern economies.

Shirky argues that free time became a problem after the end of WWII, as Western economies grew more automated and more prosperous. Heavy consumption of television provided an initial solution. Gin, that “critical lubricant that eased our transition from one kind of society to another,” gave way to the sitcom.

More recently TV viewing has given way to the Internet. Shirky argues that much of today’s online culture—including videos of toilet-flushing cats and Wikipedia editors wasting 19,000 (!) words on an argument about whether the neologism “malamanteau” belongs on the site—is much better than television. Better because, while sitcoms give us couch potatoes, the Internet nudges us toward creative work.

That said, Cognitive Surplus is not a celebration of digital creativity along the lines of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman or Lawrence Lessig’s “remix culture.” Shirky instead focuses on the sharing aspect of online creation: we are, he asserts, by nature social, so the Internet, unlike television, lets us be who we really are. “No one would create a lolcat to keep for themselves,” Shirky argues, referring to the bête noire of Internet-bashers, the humorous photos of cats spiced up with funny and provocative captions. “Cognitive surplus” is what results when we multiply our constantly expanding free time by the tremendous power of the Internet to enable us do more with less, and to do it together with others.

According to Clay Shirky, ‘the real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap.’

Arguments about infinite digital opportunities for doing good have been a commonplace of cyber-utopians since the mid-1990s. But Shirky is a populist, not a utopian. His only benchmark of success is the relative standing of “us” against dominant institutions and, in particular, against the mind-numbing, brain-damaging, creativity-suppressing beast that is the traditional media.

For Shirky, doing anything online beats the passivity nurtured by the traditional media. The argument is beautiful in its simplicity: “the real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap,” for “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.”

To drive that point home, he proposes a thought experiment: while Americans spend 200 billion hours a year watching television, the whole of humanity spent something like 100 million hours to create Wikipedia (or, at least, its 2008 version). Thus, even a tiny change in our TV watching habits can lead to significant social gains. Not every Internet project would become a Wikipedia—lolcats are still currency of the day—but Shirky urges us to keep trying. Short-selling the Internet may prevent us stumbling upon a technology as revolutionary as the printing press.

Shirky’s strong suit is not hard data, but clever anecdotes. He draws on a vast array of provocative and memorable stories—from anime communities in Japan to skaters in Santa Monica, garbage-collectors in Pakistan, and car-poolers in Canada—that help to bolster his thesis. But the anecdotes don’t make up for the lack of rigor. In a book that claims to document broad social shifts across different media eco-systems, revolutionary changes are presumed to be self-evident, linear, and transparent.


In Cognititive Surplus, Shirky is comparably inventive. This time, the tech-savvy teenage protesters of South Korea make a prominent appearance. The South Korean example is worth discussing in detail because it highlights how easy it is to draw misleading conclusions from anecdotes.

For more than a month between May and June 2008, the streets of Seoul brimmed with tens of thousands of angry people, unhappy that newly elected president Lee Myung-Bak had lifted a five-year ban on imports of American beef. Many South Koreans felt that the ban, originally imposed because of fears of mad cow disease, had been rescinded too hastily, giving public safety a back seat to the exigencies of foreign policy.

So they took to Seoul’s parks and public squares and mounted candlelight vigils and sang “No to mad cow!” By late June, their efforts paid off: the president was forced to apologize on national television, reshuffle his cabinet, and add a few extra restrictions to the trade agreement.

Shirky zeroes in on the high-school students—most of them girls—who spearheaded the protests. He is particularly impressed to report that they learned about the ban through postings on an Internet forum dedicated to their favorite boy band. “Massed together, frightened and angry that Lee’s government had agreed to what seemed a national humiliation and a threat to public health, the girls decided to do something about it,” Shirky writes, pointing out that the band’s Web site “provided a place and a reason for Korea’s youth to gather together by the hundreds of thousands.”

For Shirky, this suggests nothing less than a revolution in revolution-making: “When teenage girls can help organize events that unnerve national governments, without needing professional organization or organizers to get the ball rolling, we are in new territory.” He uses the story to illustrate the limitations of the South Korean media in fostering such revolutionary pursuits: a similar protest would have been unimaginable in the sitcom age.


The problem isn’t just that Shirky overlooks some facts. His central narrative—people vs. corrupt and irresponsible government—blinds him to the ambiguous implications of that mix of free time and Internet access that he celebrates as “cognitive surplus.” Yes, South Korea is prosperous and wired. But it still harbors numerous social ills that information technology may aggravate.

Shirky ignores South Korea’s epidemic of Internet addiction, from which 2 million residents (4 percent of the population) reportedly suffer. (Remember the South Korean couple that let their three-month-old starve to death while they reared their virtual child?) Nor does he mention the growth of xenophobic cyber-vigilante groups that troll social-networking sites in search of evidence that foreigners who come to teach English in the country behave immorally. And Shirky is similarly oblivious to the patriotic netizens who organize cyber-attacks on Japanese Web sites over matters as petty as figure skating. More substantial issues between the two countries—like the future of the disputed Liancourt Rocks islands—result in even greater online vitriol.

If your only metric of social progress concerns who has access to what tools and at what costs, such “negative externalities” do not matter. But if you are not already a committed populist, such risks may give you pause.


The broader societal implications of Shirky’s argument are clear: universal access to tools for producing and disseminating information is the ultimate public good, even if it crowds out other such goods. To that end Shirky closes the book with a powerful—if abstract—call to arms:

We look everywhere a reader or a viewer or a patient or a citizen has been locked out of creating and sharing . . . and we’re asking. If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen? (Emphasis original.) Maybe. But Shirky’s digital populism not only blinds him, McLuhan-style, to inconvenient facts, it blinds him to the immense complexities and competing values inherent in democratic societies. He says he is writing about Western democracies, but they are unrecognizable in his book, for they appear to have been sterilized completely of social conflict.

Shirky presents a world without nationalism, corruption, religion, extremism, terrorism. It is a world without any elections, and thus no need to worry about informed voters. Class, gender, and race make a few appearances, but not as venues of systemic oppression. They are just more testimony to the mainstream media’s elitism. Describing the media habits of his young students, Shirky remarks that they “have never known a world with only three television channels, a world where the only choice a viewer had in the early evening was which white man was going to read them the news in English.”

But while Shirky seems content to gloss over the deficiencies of democratic politics and declare them transformed, a more sober analyst will realize that the transformation of those politics is far from complete and in fact requires more determined popular engagement. Even in the age of the Internet, the fate of the nation depends on who organizes in the public sphere, who shows up at the voting booth, and how well-informed those people are." (

Review by Clay Spinuzzi

"The thesis is that economic changes have given us free time, and each generation finds ways to invest its free time. For newly industrialized London in the 1700s, the solution was gin. For 1950s US, it was the sitcom. For this generation, it's the Internet and other connectivity tools. That is, this generation's cognitive surplus is no longer completely wasted: people can actually make and share things. In one anecdote, Shirky recounts explaining Wikipedia to a TV producer, who sighs, "Where do they find the time?" "Hearing this, I snapped, and said, 'No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from.'" (p.9).

Bravo. As Shirky passionately argues, the TV generations spent enormous time in the basement comparing Ginger and Mary Ann. The Internet generation - some of it - spends time producing things. Those things might include the innumerable versions of "Bed Intruder" that I surfed on YouTube this morning, sure. But some include the blog post I'm currently writing, which may possibly help someone out, or Wikipedia, or fan fiction. That's not simply because of innate generational differences. "Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do" (p.121).

Overall, the book is well written and intriguing, and does a great job explaining how "makers" fit in and thrive. I'd recommend it to anyone who's trying to figure out participatory culture." (

Jean Lievens on the P2P Revolution in Media

Jean Lievens:

"The Internet as a “new” medium is not an extension or an extra platform of the traditional media; it is qualitatively different because it turns the passive media consumer (the couch potato) into an active contributor. People not only like to consume, they also like to contribute and share. The Internet makes this possible. Therefore, we are dealing with a completely new ball game, making former Marxists analyses and demands in relation to this subject quite obsolete.

Parts of these thoughts are literally taken from two books by Clay Shirky’s: “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus’. To avoid too many quotes, I left some of the references out. I mention this here, because I don’t want to appear cleverer than I am. On this subject, Shirky rules...

Manufacturing Consent

Karl Marx explained that in every epoch, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. The emerging working class build their own press to fight these dominant ideas. Genuine working class papers played an important role in the battle for democratic rights and political power. Lenin considered Iskra not only as a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also as a collective organizer. In this last respect it may be likened to the scaffolding round a building under construction, which marks the contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders, enabling them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organized labour.

But the days of the printing press as the medium ‘par excellence’ are long gone. First radio, then TV and now the Internet were added to the mass media arsenal that developed under capitalism. Noam Chomsky explains that propaganda is to a democracy what violence is to a dictatorship. In order to keep their privileged and dominating position in society, the ruling class needs to control the minds of the majority. They do this using the so-called ‘free media’, which off course is not free at all. The “traditional” media (I make this distinction because the Internet is a different cattle of fish; to begin with: who ‘owns’ it?) are under control of a power elite who owns and/or control the institutions. The masses of people are marginalized, diverted and controlled by what Chomsky calls “necessary illusions”.

For over fifty years, TV was probably the mightiest weapon in the hands of the ruling class to control public opinion, not only through ‘the news’, filtered by selected editors operating as gatekeepers, but mainly through all sorts of entertainment programs, most of the time reflecting the lives and aspirations of the rich and the wealthy middle class, consuming their way into happiness.

From couch potato to creative involvement

One of the major conquests of the worker’s movement was the limitation of the working week to 40 hours (1/3 work, 1/3 sleep and 1/3 “free time”). In reality, every working mother and father will tell you that this “free time” is not free at all. We need it to fulfil all sorts of responsibilities: household tasks, administrative obligations, and even more and more unpaid work for the company or state institution we work for (thanks to e-mail, PC’s, smart phones and the need for “permanent education”). For most working people since the fifties, their “real” free time is spent before TV: an average of over twenty hours a week, worldwide! This is the equivalent of a part-time job, making watching TV the main human activity after work and sleep (despite the fact that watching too much TV is an important source for unhappiness). In addition, TV also contributed largely to out-crowding social activities and stimulating material aspirations (consumerism). As usual, the US are ‘leading the way’. Americans spend more than 33 hours per week watching video across the screens, according to the latest Nielsen Cross-Platform Report. That is nearly the equivalent of a fulltime job!

However, the Internet is changing this culture, especially amongst young people who are not conditioned by their experiences with the “traditional media”. For the first time in history, some cohorts of young people are watching TV less than their parents. They are shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption. The reason is that the Internet not only allows people to “consume” information, it also allows people to comment, share and contribute. It even allows people to make news! With more than a billion smart phones with Internet connection around, it becomes less and less possible for authorities to keep news hidden. Thanks to Twitter and other social networks, the news is out as it is happening.

In addition, sharing and creating are deeply human needs that weren’t possible to develop under the old regime of traditional media (wit the exception of the odd letter to the editor), but are starting to blossom in the new ecosystem of the Internet. In this new ecosystem, value is created on a non-commercial base by millions of contributors. Media commentator and author Clay Shirky calls the “free time” of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate “cognitive surplus”. By 2010, it was estimated that Wikipedia represented something like a hundred million hours of human thought. But Americans alone watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year! So the “production” of Wikipedia only represents the tiniest fraction of “free time” that shifted from consuming to producing.

A new ecosystem

It is therefore a mistake to consider the Internet just as “another media channel”. To understand the impact of it, we must review our old ways of thinking about “the media”. The Internet is not “an invention” with clear aims and preconceived ideas of the consequences. YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia… did not even exist ten years ago, today they penetrated the life of hundreds of millions and even of billions. Especially the social uses of the new media tools have been a big surprise, in part because the possibility of these uses wasn’t implicit in the tools themselves. In addition, the social media are also challenging governments and traditional media in reporting all sorts of news: from natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami and the Haitian earthquake to political violence in Kenya 2008, Libya 2011 or Syria today.

To give just one example: Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’) was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya. The traditional media was not covering it, and the government had no intention to report it. Ushahidi originated from a blog, making it possible for people ‘on the ground’ to report ethnic violence with the help of their mobile phones or pc’s. In other words, the website aggregated available but dispersed knowledge and collectively weaved together all the piecemeal awareness among individual witnesses into a nationwide picture. It has been used afterwards to track similar acts of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to monitor places and avoid voter fraud in India and Mexico, to record supplies of vital medicines in several East African countries, and to locate the injured after the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.

Capitalist development and urbanization undermined and ‘atomized’ social life. Social media provided us with a tool to rediscover it, not in the already outmoded notion of ‘cyberspace’, but in real life (for example Meetup bringing people with similar interests together on the Internet, with the aim of socialising in real life). They are not an alternative to “real life”, but becoming more and more a part of it. “Participatory culture”, a term invented to describe Internet activity, is the modern name of an old habit reflecting basic human needs like belonging, participating and creating. If you “participate”, from sending a photo of a terrorist attack on a London Tube station using Twitter, to making and sharing a lolcat on Facebook, your act “matters”. How trivial your participation might be, it is qualitatively different from sitting in your couch watching Desperate Housewives or Big Brother. That doesn’t mean that we’ll stop watching TV, only that consumption is no longer the only way we are using the media. Shirky: “In addition, the world’s “cognitive surplus’ is so large that even very small changes can have huge ramifications in aggregate. Just one percent of the trillion hours we are watching TV is the equivalent of one hundred Wikipedia’s worth of participation per year.”

“Social media and the use of the Internet are also increasingly coordinating events in the physical world. The new technology enables new kinds of group forming at practical zero cost. It leads to an enormous increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organisations. By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management or ‘leadership’ in general (think of Wikipedia), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication and scope of unsupervised effort. Social media tools make action possible by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive.” The classical Marxist analysis of “the media” is insufficient to deal with this development, simply because the technology that made it possible did not exist just ten years ago.

If you can write, have an Internet connection and a PC or smart phone, you can create your own mini news station. You can make a blog or a “vlog”, make little ‘news flashes’ using the webcam, share interesting articles you found on the Web, etc. You can share your views on a broader platform or comment on other bloggers. You can share with the whole world your photos on Flickr, your video’s on YouTube and your messages on Twitter. It is true that most of these individual contributions go unnoticed (the most active contributions tend to be much more active than the median participant, therefore any measure of “average” participation becomes meaningless) and don’t “compete” with the traditional news media. But this is beside the point. The Internet is not a newspaper or a TV station. It is even not a business or an institution. It’s something very ‘different’. What we are witnessing is the beginning of a revolution that will make the traditional media formats obsolete in the long run. We see already the migration of all other media to this new platform. But it is a platform that ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ are occupying together and therefore the borders that separate them are fading.

Traditional media are based on a one-to-many model: one newspaper, made by few professionals to be read by many readers; one TV station, staffed by a selective group of professionals to be passively watched by many viewers. The control over the traditional media is in the hands of a ruling elite that exercise their control through ownership or political power. They select and appoint the managers and editors, who in their turn hire journalists, photographers and other professionals. The editors, controlled by managers who are accountable to the owners or political masters, decide what is news and what isn’t, and how they bring it. Not surprisingly, they see themselves as free spirits and independent agents, the gatekeepers of the free press. What they don’t realise (until they are summoned by their masters), is that the reason why they are where they are, is because they think what they think in the first place. Therefore people with different views, the so-called "dissenting voices" are not heard much. The stance of ‘leading newspapers’ and the ‘institutional memory’ prevail and become “official recorded history”. Finally, people's interest and attention are often focused on other material than issues about which they could become concerned with. Most workers don’t read the political opinion of the chief editors, but, as Michael Albert points out, stick mainly to the sport section because at least, these pages tell the truth.

How does the Internet change all that? People still watch soaps on TV, read the conservative gutter press, watch manipulated and selected news on TV… In addition, how do you find useful information on the Internet if you don’t even know what you are looking for? Again, this kind of criticism is based on the faulty assumption that the Internet is just another information medium like the rest. But it is not. We are dealing with a medium that isn’t ruled by scarcity, but by abundance, one that transports information in the form of bits and bytes that can be endlessly copied at zero costs, hence the ongoing fight against piracy and the continuous attempts to control what is “published” on the Internet. With the Internet, you don’t need paper to move words, CD’s to move music and DVD’s to move images. It can all be easily copied and transported for free.

Because of this feature alone, the Internet is undermining the business models of all traditional media. The music industry was the first to collapse, newspapers and commercial TV, living from ads, are next in line. It is again technology that makes the old models obsolete. Digital TV makes it possible to watch the programs when you want to watch them, skipping the commercials. You can “freeze” real time TV, wait ten minutes and watch the rest with a small delay in order to avoid the ads. The commercial viability of most media businesses depends on transmitting words, sounds and images, using complicated and expensive equipment like printing presses, recording studios etc. Their survival depends on the preservation of these scarcities. As the problems of production, reproduction and distribution are diminishing, the ruling class and the media professionals are loosing a part of their control over the media. That means also that the battleground for the control over the minds of the people (the manufacturing of consent) is shifting towards the Internet.

The Future (or the end) of Journalism (as we know it)

The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem; it created a whole new ecosystem. Its future is the mass amateurization of publishing and a shift from ‘why publishing?’ to ‘why not?” This represents a revolution. In the same way that the printing press made the profession of scribes obsolete, the Internet starts to undermine the profession of journalism. The Protestant Reformation was not caused by the invention of the movable type, but it is also true that it was only possible after its invention. In Marxists terms you could argue that technology in and of itself does not provoke social change, but social change becomes only possible if the material conditions, including technology, are in place. The social effects lag behind, sometimes by many decades. Or is Shirky puts it: “Revolution can be a long drawn-out and chaotic process during which the old systems are decaying and get broken, long before new ones become stable.” In that sense, one could easily argue that the revolution started decades ago.

Let’s return to the question of professional journalism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a journalist is “a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.” In this version, journalists aren’t journalists unless they work for publishers, and publishers aren’t publishers unless they own the means of production. This definition does not apply to ‘civil journalists’ and bloggers. They are not protected in the same way as professional journalists, who are organized in professional associations and have for instance the formal right to protect their sources. On the other hand, anyone in the world can publish anything anytime on the Web, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable (thanks to tagging). If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a ‘journalist’. And if anyone can be a journalist, then journalist privilege suddenly becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society (Shirky). Journalistic privilege was based on the scarcity of publishing. Now that scarcity is gone. Just as the printing press threatened the power of the scribes and by extension undermined the monopoly of the Catholic Church in Europe, the Internet is threatening not only the traditional media, but also a lot of the core institutions of capitalist society. Therefore, again, the media battle is shifting to the control over the Internet, as reflected in the fight against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.

Commercial interests and protecting intellectual property (copyright, patents etc) are not the only reason why authorities, under pressure of business interests, are trying to clamp down on Internet freedom. There are many examples of successful political actions as a result of using social media, from flashmobs in Belarus over the ‘frites revolution’ in Belgium to the Arab spring. Social media make it possible for previously uncoordinated participants to create a public protest that the government cannot interdict in advance no suppress without triggering mass reporting by participants and bystanders. The more people are oppressed (in countries without a “free press”), the more they make use of these new tools that provide them with a degree of “freedom” of speech, press and assembly that was formally far more difficult or even impossible to obtain. That means that also authoritarian regimes are looking desperately for effective measures to censure the Internet (think of the Great Firewall of China, but also of its limitations).

Revolution and Co-evolution

According to Clay Shirky, “communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn’t create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming. We are living in the middle of the largest expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in one generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communication tools”: the printing press and movable type, the telegraph and telephone, recorded content and the harnessing of radio signals. “Each of those represented a real break with the continuity of the past, because any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society.”

“The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences – employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complicated the change will be.”

Finally, the Internet empowers people not only to bypass government and corporations in favour of taking on problems directly, but also bureaucratic labour organisations. To a certain degree, we see this already happening in the Occupy movement." (

More Information

  1. Book: Here Comes Everybody