Today, I spoke to Clay Shirky, who teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, is the bestselling author of Here Comes Everybody, and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In this interview, Clay talks about his latest book, how technology is changing the workplace, social network privacy, and more.
How did you come up with the title of your latest book “Cognitive Surplus”?
I was working on a talk for Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference, and thinking about the resources that things like Open Source software and Wikipedia draw on. I needed a phrase to capture something like “the cumulative free time and talents available in a networked world”; I ended up with two such phrases — social surplus and cognitive surplus. Neither is perfect, since a lot of joint collaborative projects involve more than just cognition, as with political action coordinated via Meetup or Facebook, but cognitive surplus seemed to me to come closer to the original intuition.
What changes in technology will allow us to tap the full human potential at work?
- For a technology to change behavior, it has to offer some new thing people want to do; behavior is just motivation filtered through opportunity. We’ve lived through 30 years of only moderate success for “knowledge management” programs, because those programs often assumed that employees would be both able and willing to share all the tacit knowledge they had accumulated about their jobs. The generally poor performance of things like knowledge management intranet projects wasn’t a failure of technology, but rather a design failure around the question “Why would a worker want to do this?”
- The full human potential will never be captured by businesses; we are all provisioned with motivations and interests and behaviors that are precious to us, but irrelevant to the work we do for money. The question for businesses, as ever, is “Is there a new opportunity to generate more value for fewer dollars?” — some of that can sometimes be achieved with technology, but there’s no 100% mark, no end point to reach; it’s merely optimization as far as the eye can see.
Facebook has recently changed their privacy settings, again. Do you think there is a future for privacy or will there be complete transparency?
There is a future for privacy, of course, because what Facebook shows, again and again, is that people get upset at high-handed attempts to dictate too much visibility of their personal lives. This is not to say that privacy isn’t eroding, or that Facebook hasn’t succeeded in doing much of that eroding in the name of its business mission, but they won’t succeed at making everything available to everyone, because humans would refuse to live in a world like that, and pursuing such a goal too aggressively would damage Facebook’s ability to retain users.
What trends do you see on the horizon that will be impacted by social media?
All of them. (I mean, can you name a developed-world trend that isn’t affected by the ability to spread through social networks?) By way of comparison, imagine someone asking you, in 1910, what trends would be shaped by the telephone? Same answer.
Because communication is a fundamental part of all human activity, the phone ended up affecting everything from mating rituals to international diplomacy Similarly, the importance of the social graph as a shaper of anything that passes through society is going to become so present as to be invisible, in the same way the telephone became ubiquitous and invisible.
How did Jimmy Wales get so many people to donate their time to building Wikipedia?
To which the answer, obviously, that the kids aren’t working, they are playing, and they are not doing it for Lego, they are doing it for themselves. Some kinds of human effort can’t be accounted for by treating them as labor; playing with Legos is one example, and Wikipedia is another.
What Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created was an environment where many of those intrinsic motivations could similarly be expressed. Some of those motivations are personal — Wikipedia provides great rewards for personal motivations, like the feeling of autonomy, or competence. It also provides great rewards for social motivations, like feelings of membership, or generosity. Like Legos, Wikipedia, is best viewed as a platform for people to reward themselves, and one another, with the effort they put in, rather than viewing it as site where Jimmy has somehow tricked people into working for free.
Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where he researches the interrelated effects of our social and technological networks. He is the bestselling author of Here Comes Everybody, and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. He has consulted with a variety of groups working on network design, including Nokia, the BBC, Newscorp, Microsoft, BP, Global Business Network, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Navy, the Libyan government, and Lego(r). His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (of London), Harvard Business Review, Business 2.0, and Wired.