The one-sentence summary

More and more people are using their free time to become involved in active participation.

WHAT THE BOOK SAYSCognitive Surplus - Clay Shirky

  • In the post-industrial world, there has been a huge increase in the number of people paid to think and talk, rather than to produce or transport objects.
  • We now have free time on a scale like never before, but for most of the second half of the last century, most people just used it to watch TV.
  • TV viewing is now in decline for the first time, and the world is beginning to use the Cognitive Surplus generated by free time to become involved in active participation rather than passive consumption.
  • Subtitled ‘Creativity and generosity in a connected age’, the book uses a mixture of example, analysis and social theory to suggest why a new generation is making choices that contribute to a greater whole.
  • We now have the means, motive and opportunity to experiment with ideas at almost no cost, and on a huge base of potential users. Tapping this surplus benefits everybody.


  • 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.
  • Old logic is television logic. TV audiences didn’t create any real value for each other. In fact, TV raises material aspirations and anxiety. We need to rethink our concept of media – it’s not something we consume, it’s something we use.
  • The internet succumbs to post-Gutenberg economics. No one in particular owns it, and everyone can use it.
  • There are three types of group production:

1. Private sector: a group does something for less than its selling price

2. Public sector: obliged to work together on something of perceived high value

3. Social: value creation without price signals and managerial oversight

  • People are ‘hopelessly committed’ both to being individual and collective. In chemistry, bonding atoms have valence. In social production, contributors need a ‘positive normative or ethical valence toward the process’.
  • Some suggestions for harnessing the cognitive surplus:
  • Starting: start small; ask why?; behaviour follows opportunity; default to social
  • Growing: 100 users are harder than 12 and 1000; people differ, more people differ more; intimacy doesn’t scale; support a supportive culture
  • Adapting: the faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; success causes more problems than failure; clarity is violence; try anything, try everything


It’s a great idea but it could have been expressed in an essay rather than a book.