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Our “cognitive surplus” is temporary, just like the fossil fuels that power it

In his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus, released in hardcover with the subtitle “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” and in paperback with the subtitle “How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators,” Clay Shirky expanded his reputation as everybody’s favorite digital guru by arguing that “new digital technology” — primarily of the social media sort — “is unleashing a torrent of creative production that will transform our world. For the first time, people are embracing new media that allow them to pool their efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind-expanding reference tools like Wikipedia to life-saving Web sites like, which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence in real time. [The book] explores what’s possible when people unite to use their intellect, energy, and time for the greater good.”

Here he is expounding the idea in a popular TED talk:

Although Shirky can be criticized for an undue optimism, since it’s quite likely that his view of how people tend to use the freeing of their time and mental energy by technology is overly rosy, the fact that such a freeing-up has happened is incontrovertible. And now comes a paper written by two experts in digital communications and published in one of the longest-running online journals about the Internet itself that argues the cognitive surplus is a side effect of our massive exploitation of fossil fuels, and that its fate and future will therefore parallel the arc of fossil fuel-based civilization, which is, in the wide scope of things, a fleeting phase in human history, since “fossil fuels are not forever.” Read the rest of this entry