IFOA 2011: Clay Shirky on the Information Age
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IFOA 2011: Clay Shirky on the Information Age

Author Clay Shirky. Photo courtesy of IFOA.

There’s something about Clay Shirky that feels almost dated; he’s so current that his theories of information-age expression occasionally feel as though they run the risk of becoming next week’s dot-com joke. For mostly this reason, it seemed appropriate that the high-profile author be explaining the symbolism of LOLcats in an age of digital DIY to a crowd of predominantly boomers on Friday night.

To the generation of so-called digital natives entering early adulthood now, Shirky’s insistence on the salience of Twitter and dignified mediocrity of the lowly internet meme might appear unexceptional, maybe even obvious. But the role of the cultural documentarian isn’t about blowing cynical young minds so much as it is about making sense of the now, in a broader sense. This where-we’re-at pondering is why Shirky is held as one of today’s media theory savants. While the comparisons to Marshal McLuhan—the very basis for Shirky’s invitation to speak as part of the former’s 100th birthday reading series—may seem overwrought, there’s certainly value in picking apart the way we’re interacting at this very moment. During Friday night’s 90 minute–long interview and lecture, a rapt audience inhaled every morsel.

Shirky’s latest book, and the basis for his IFOA interview by the CBC’s Jesse Hirsh, delves into the concept of cognitive surplus, which Shirky explains as the “idea that there’s a certain amount of free time and energy that each of us can apply in things that we are interested in and care about.” Cognitive surplus, as Shirky explains it, is really made up of two things: free time and a network that allows us to aggregate participation into group action.

“If I was going to talk about this resource, as I set out to write this book, I needed some way to measure and say, there is a new resource that society is designing and this is how big it is,” Shirky says. “But I didn’t really have a good metric, so I had to invent one.”

Shirky looked into Wikipedia, the largest collaborative volunteer project most of us are familiar with, and came to the conclusion that some 100 million hours had been given over to creating the site by 2008. But how big was this as a resource relative to, say, television?

Says Shirky: “The answer is that [television viewing comprises] 200 billion hours in North America alone. Every year! Which means that the entire history of Wikipedia is a rounding error on the cumulative free time that we all have. Put it another way: in North America, we spend a Wikipedia project’s worth of time, every weekend, just watching ads.”

It’s a concept that Shirky applies to the dissection of every aspect of information transmission and consumption, and it’s an interesting way to consider how we process information on a grand scale. Whether it holds up next week is anybody’s guess.

Opening Weekend at the International Festival of Authors: