Cognitive Surplus – Book Discussion

cognitive surplusDunce two, I have been reading a book by Clay Shirky called Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

I’m only about halfway through right now, so I can’t weigh in yet on my overall impressions–although that has never stopped me before. But there was something that caught my eye in an early chapter that I would like to know your non-thoughts on.

There is a lot of talk about the evolution of the printing press. With greater means of distribution, and with more people able to publish books, the overall amount of excellent works must necessarily dip. Whether you believe that or not, here are a couple of quotes:

From Edgar Allan Poe:

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of lumber

And from Martin Luther:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of mere gain.

There is no better example of how easy it is to push “publish” than to do what I’m about to do–push the publish button and send this post out into the web.

Thoughts on these quotes? I doubt many would argue that the majority of material being added to the web every day elevates the discourse.

It now seems completely archaic that there was a time when the public was not able to put information out there, but there you have it. That’s exactly how it used to be.

I’ve always been a fan of Poe’s, but there are plenty of people out there who think he was the biggest hack of all time.

Does any of this change your thoughts on anything?

10 thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus – Book Discussion

  1. Do you really believe that “the majority of material being added to the web every day elevates the discourse”? I’m afraid I can’t see that. While I agree that the positions taken by Poe and Luther above do seem archaic in our information age, and elitist in any age, wouldn’t you have to agree that there is a lot to wade through? Lumber, and what have you.

    Granted, if you don’t want to read something, you don’t have to. But haven’t you ever picked up a book, and spent at least some amount of time reading it, only to discover that its author is an illiterate fool that never should have been allowed to put pen to paper? Wouldn’t you rather have spent that time reading something worthwhile?

    Imagine if you could go into a bookstore or a library, and every single book in it was well-written, thought-provoking, inspiring? Have you ever been to such a place? I certainly have not.

    I think what they are saying is not necessarily an admonition against quantity, but a plea for quality. Doesn’t it sicken you to see time and resources wasted on materials that add nothing positive to the literary experience? Wouldn’t you agree, at least in some instances, that just because something can be written, published, and even sold, does not necessarily mean that it should?

  2. Is this an opinion or an observation? Knowledge breeds knowledge and ideas breed ideas. Both Poe and Luther have an egocentric view of this. They also may have felt that their identity was being threatened. Have you ever discovered something relatively new and cutting edge and felt unique only to have the popularity of that grow to the point that you were no longer an exception? As much as you liked it you almost start to see it with disdain. I started rock climbing about twenty years ago and nobody knew what it was. I was “crazy”…but intriguing. Then it grew and soon everyone was climbing.
    Now for the egocentric part. They thought much of what was being written would have to be waded through for that of worth, but isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? There are millions of people out there reading tabloids who have never heard of Poe. Thank heavens for google.

    • Doctor, I have observed the “start to see it with disdain” phenomenon you describe. I wonder why that is. I think part of it has to do with the instant-gratification we, in our generation, are blessed/cursed with. We are always looking for the bigger, better deal, newer idea, next rush, higher high (speaking mostly figuratively as to that last part). Nothing holds our interest for long, though, and once the latest craze has run its course, we are so, so over it.

      I think it has, too, to do with trends generally. I don’t know what your “discovered things” have been specifically, but let’s discuss, for the sake of argument, the rock-climbing example. You started it because you thought it was fun and exciting, and I suspect the unique newness of it also appealed to you. I think this is all healthy and natural. But then others got into it, not because it was new or self-discovered, but because it had become “cool,” a popular thing to do. And once a thing becomes widely popular, you can question the integrity of people that pursue that thing. Theirs is not the pure rush of the new discoverer, but that of the follower, the hanger on, the wanna-be. Your love of rock-climbing is pure, while theirs is tainted by any number of possible other motivations. Or am I completely missing your point?

  3. “As much as you liked it you almost start to see it with disdain. ”

    That quote reminds me of this yesterday from The Onion:,19791/

    I’m all for ease of publication. Even if mountains of so-so material are added every minute, more people in the conversation means more opportunities and opinions to observe, test, and evaluate.

    In the book, which I’m now finished with, I think the most relevant piece with regards to your comment is what Shirky calls “combinality.” And it is much easier to have combinality with knowledge/ideas than with material goods.

    Thank you, good doctor.

    • The funniest thing about the article you reference is that it is, while funny, also not anything other than completely accurate. And I must be ahead of the cultural curve, because I had absolutely had it with the double rainbow guy before I even shut off that stupid video just 30 seconds into it.

      I would agree, I did not care at all for both Poe and Luther’s abject egocentricism. They weren’t saying they wished there was less mediocre literature out there because such literature stood in the way of their own collective ability to enhance their own knowledge and understanding. They were saying they wished there wasn’t so much other literature out there preventing other people from gaining access to the books that they (Poe and Luther) were themselves writing. As if to say that the stuff they were writing was the best, most worth-reading stuff in the entire world. The arrogance and presumption that such a stance necessitates makes me ill, and leaves me with the almost uncontrollable urge to attempt to contact these guys, wherever they are, and ask them just who, exactly, they think they are.

  4. I am aware of a certain class of people to which the proliferation of sub-standard “literature” could be a real threat. These people, and there are a surprisingly large number of them, are gripped by a compulsion to finish every book that they start. No matter how painful, or stupid, or poorly-written it is, once they start, they can’t stop. It becomes a matter of personal pride. And this, to me, is sad. It was a liberating day indeed when I determined that I don’t have to finish a book just because I start it. In fact, I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to. I read books sometimes 5, 6, 7 at a time. I own some, check some out from the library, receive some as gifts, borrow some from friends. As my moods change, what I want to read changes. Some books I finish in a few hours, some in days, some in weeks, and some I never finish. And I am fine with that. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  5. Okay, I’m done with the book now. I’d like to pose another question.

    Toward the end the author cites a book called The Cult of The Amateur. The author of that book makes the statement that “bloggers are like monkeys.”

    Given the title of that book, what do you think he’s getting at? I know you like monkeys, but does blogging make you feel more like one?

    • Given my fondness for monkeys, I don’t take it as the insult I suspect it was intended to be. And clearly that author hasn’t appropriately considered the theory that you put enough chimpanzees on enough typewriters and they will eventually reproduce the entire works of William Shakespeare. Taking the title of the book together with the “bloggers = primates” statement, I think he is, very condescendingly, suggesting that bloggers are all, universally, untalented, pedestrian, and collectively incapable of producing anything worth reading. I take issue with that.

      As to your last question, I have considered it, and think blogging does make me feel a bit more like a monkey. But not in a bad way.

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