Cognitive Surplus: Definition & Book

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

There are some people who utilize their energy, creativity and free time--cognitive surplus-- to create and produce things with technology. In this lesson, learn how one man named Clay Shirky defines cognitive surplus and writes a book on how it can help society and make the world a better place.

What Is Cognitive Surplus?

Most people who have ever searched for something online have encountered the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wikipedia is developed by a collaboration of people who have knowledge on certain subjects and want to contribute to this worldwide source of free information. Do they get pay or credit for contributing? No. They are purely volunteers. They volunteer because they have the time and generosity to do so. This is cognitive surplus.

Cognitive surplus is a phrase coined by Clay Shirky, a Yale-educated writer and New York University Department of Journalism professor who teaches about the social and economic impacts of the internet. Cognitive surplus is a synthesis of the surplus of people's time, energy, creativity, and generosity that leads to productivity, creation, and sharing amid technology realms. Shirky's asserts that people have a lot of time on their hands, combined with increased participation on the internet and social media, and this leads to increased creation and sharing.

While some people use their time to create and share photoshopped memes of cats, Shirky is most interested in those that utilize their time and energy to create technology that betters society.

Four Types of Sharing

Shirky identifies four different types of sharing in the technology world: personal, communal, public, and civic. While personal and communal sharing is better than nothing, public and civic sharing are the best ways to utilize cognitive surplus. Here are the four types of sharing:


Emily posts videos from her trip to Costa Rica on her YouTube account. This really just allows Emily to have her videos on one technology platform and really only benefits her.


Robert posts a picture of the dining room table that he is trying to sell on Craigslist and simultaneously looks for an entertainment unit. Craigslist is an example of communal sharing because it is collaborative and interactive, but only benefits the community, in this case the area of where Robert lives.


Victoria voluntarily writes information for a Wikipedia page, which is available to the public. This benefits Victoria because she enjoys contributing, creating, and sharing. It, of course, benefits others too because they now have access to this free information.


We will use a real-life example here, one that Clay Shirky uses in his book. Post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 led to a country-wide crisis. It was hard for Kenyans to report violence or find safe havens from the violence. This was until some bloggers and web developers volunteered their time to create a crowd-sourcing software called Ushahidi.

Ushahidi, Inc. is a software that collaborates with Google Maps. It allowed Kenyans to map in real-time where violence was occurring and facilitated donations to the country. What's even more amazing is that Ushahidi has helped other world crises as well, such as the devastation from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. Volunteers were able to look at Haiti's crisis mapping and collaborate on rescue and donation missions to help rebuild the country.

Cognitive surplus becomes valuable when it is transformed into public and civic sharing. Surely, humans are motivated by extrinsic factors like money, praise, or fame. Yet, many are also motivated by intrinsic factors like helping make the world a better place. If that desire can be transformed into public and civic sharing and creating for non-profit organizations, for example, these organizations can operate with less contractual overhead in helping solve world problems.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Clay Shirky's book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age explains the concept of cognitive surplus in detail. Shirky begins the book talking about London in the 1720s. Shirky writes that many people in London were drinking gin in order to numb the pain of the stressful shift into a world of industrialization and factory/urban life.

Shirky compares television watching to getting drunk off gin. He says that television is essentially a way of numbing the pain and stress associated with the switch from industrialization to the information era. People have a good amount of free time on their hands these days, but many spend that free time as passive consumers of the 'boob tube.'

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