Tag Archives: Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus Implications for Digital Activism in Repressive Environments

This is the second of two blog posts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” The “cognitive surplus” that Clay refers to is the ” buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population.” And unlike any other time in human history, “we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.”

The notion of “cognitive surplus” touches on some of the arguments I’ve made regarding the competition between digital activists and repressive regimes—the time and organizational factor. As noted by this guide on nonviolent struggle, “time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle.” The question is, which side—or organizational topology—can make best use of this time?

The trillion hours of free time and low cost of discovery afforded by today’s communication technologies means that individuals can find themselves more easily and network around a cause. This gives rise to new actors as noted by Clay:

The competition between the government and the people has thus become an arms race, but one that involves a new class of participants. When teenage girls can help organize events that unnerve national governments, without needing professional organizations or organizers to get the ball rolling, we are in new territory.

I don’t think the same is true of repressive regimes. Give a dictator more free time but will they spend this time finding new creative ways to repress? Or will they instead spend this extra time buying new luxury cars while taking time off on a yacht off the coast of Monaco? Ah, but how about those who work for said dictator? Clay argues that “having to act on behalf of an authority can be one of life’s great demotivators.” Moreover,

Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare—to love. The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.

This motivation also affects how amateurs work in groups. Keeping a large group focused can be a full-time job. (It’s middle management’s reason for being, in one phrase). Organizing groups into an effective whole is brutally difficult that, past a certain scale, it requires professional management. Professional managers in turn require salaries, and salaries require income and bookkeeping and all the rest of the trappings of a formal organization, meaning there is a huge step between a bunch of people who really care about that issue and work together to do something about it.

This goes to the heart of my hypothesis for my dissertation research. See my previous blog post: Where I Stand on Digital Activism. In sum, the unprecedented trillion hour cognitive surplus is more likely to empower digital activists at the expense of coercive regimes.

Patrick Philippe Meier

From Caveman to Sufi Sheikh: Some Thoughts on Cognitive Surplus and Technology Deficits

This is the first of two blog posts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” Clay disagrees with the notion that new communication tools craft new behaviors. I agree. “What if we’ve always wanted to produce [media] as well as consume, but no one offered us that opportunity?”

Technology has long limited our behavior as a gregarious, mobile species, not created new ones. “Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.” We thought that “sharing was inherently rather than accidentally limited to small, tight-knit groups.”

So when we come across a surprising new application of technology, “instead of asking Why is this new?” which produces a technology centric answer, “we can [and should] ask Why is it a surprise?” The technology deficit (my own term) has long constrained our behaviors.

Lets take our favorite Caveman from the Geico commercials, for example. The technology deficit during those days meant that our caveman was constrained to static cave paintings. But surely Caveman would have preferred the Web to share his group’s story (or buy cheap mammoth insurance) rather than a darkly-lit cave with limited access. In fact, Flickr would have been perfect for Caveman. Another constraint with caves is the limited space for comments. Caves represent a technology deficit that prevented preferred behavior.

Lets take my friend Ma Al Eineen as an other example. I met Sheikh Ma Al Aineen, the grandson of the Blue Sultan of the Sahara, on the Western Sahara border with Mauritania some 10 years ago. He loved joking about how the cell phone was the perfect technology for nomads. Did cell phones cause nomadic behavior amongst nomads? No, nomads have always been nomadic and the fixed land line phone restricted that behavior.

This leads me to the following point: bounded crowdsourcing (which I blogged about here) is an accident caused by technology deficits. Information wants to be open but it’s been bounded by technology and power trips. “Bounded crowdsourcing” is nothing new. Indeed, restricting information flows has been the “default setting” for thousands of years. So why use the new term “bounded crowdsourcing” then?

As Clay notes, “the privilege of establishing what value the default is set at is an act of power and influence.” The use of the adjective bounded is thus as much of normative statement as it is a descriptive one. Crowdsourcing is information collection unrestricted by technology and entrenched interests. It is the norm, the “original” default setting. Anything that deviates from this is the result of tech deficits and/or of power interests.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Web4Dev: Innovation Track Day 1

I lived in New York for about four years so it’s good to be back for a few days to  participate in UNICEF’s Web4Dev conference with colleagues from Ushahidi, Development Seed, InSTEDD, Open Street Map and Digital Democracy.

Clay Shirky moderated the Innovation Track, which focused addressed the issue of access to innovation and participation. The panel included presentations by himself, Steve Vosloo and Grant Cambridge. We then self-organized into half-a-dozen working groups to address specific issues and identify potential solutions within 2-3 year horizon.


Steve Vosloo from South Africa gave the first presentation. Steve is a Shuttleworth Foundation Communications and Analytical Skills Fellow. The main thrust of his presentation was that access to participation is more important than simply having access to information.”Participation fosters Peer-to-Peer (P2P) learning across both time and space.”

This statement resonates particularly well with me as I recently presented the concept of P2P capacity building to a donor interested in fostering a conflict early warning/response ecosystem in Liberia (which I will blog about in the near future). Steve’s remark about there being a wealth of information at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) also resonated. When we talk about access to information, we have to ask ourselves access for who? For the BoP or for us? We are too often egocentric in answering this question.

Ushahidi’s Erik Hersman asked the first question following Steve’s talk. Should we be introducing new tools or going with consumer tools? I agree with Steve’s answer: both. If what we are offering is addressing the need of the BoP, then that’s what matters.

A representative from the French Development Agency asked whether moving to the mobile web meant scrapping the work they had done with regards to Internet access via the PC? Steve replied there is only one Web. The PC web and mobile web are one and the same. The Web is the glue that holds everything together.

Clay Shirky gave the second presentation and focused on different topologies of communication. He suggests that communication between people builds social capital. This means that using pre-existing consumer-based communication tools is important. Groups that use such tools for social communication (situated and informal) are going to communicate more effectively during crises.

In terms of sharing information that is communicated, Clay suggests there is a bias towards sharing. If sharing is made the default option on an information communication platform, then well over 90% of participants will share. This is a particularly important point for humanitarian information systems.

Clay shared the difference between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu surveillance project with respect to information communication. What the CDC does is not bio surveillance but rather bio accounting.  This is an excellent analogy to use for conflict early warning systems. The majority of conventional early warning systems are more accounting tools than surveillance tools given the time lag between documentation and dissemination.

Lastly, Clay made a point about moving towards a communication typology in which the different nodes are mobile phones, web servers, radios, etc. This is exactly the project design I recently presented to a donor: cloud computing for humanitarian early warning and response.

Grant Cambridge from The Meraka Institute gave the third presentation. Grant gave us a reality check vis-a-vis access in rural villages in South Africa. There are huge challenges such as maintenance; theft of copper and optical fibres is a frequent issue, for example.

Grant’s group thus developed “The Digital Doorway” a robust single, multi-terminal systems. The platform includes open content, focusing on education, maths, science and games. There are 200 Doorways across South Africa. The platforms are operational 24/7 and some sites are used around the clock.The Meraka Institute deployed the Doorway in many communities where computers had never been heard of.

But after 7 days, children developed the language and vocabulary to describe what they were doing. For example, they had no word for icon, so they made one. The kids ended up teaching themselves about how to use the Doorway. This promotes group learning. Teachers have had to switch off the Doorways because kids would skip school.The Doorways also include a feedback feature where users can provide feedback to the developers.

In conclusion, Grant reiterated the fact that access to info does not apply inclusion and Internet access doesn’t imply learning.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.


Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.


The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9” earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier