Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink have led eerily parallel lives. Both grew up in Midwest university towns in the 1970s, where they spent their formative years watching television after school and at night. Both later went to Yale (a BA in painting for Shirky, a law degree for Pink). And both eventually abandoned their chosen fields to write about technology, business, and society.

Now their paths are intersecting. In December, Pink, a Wired contributing editor, came out with Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The book digs through more than five decades of behavioral science to challenge the orthodoxy that carrots and sticks are the most effective ways to motivate workers in the 21st century. Instead, he argues, the most enduring motivations aren’t external but internal—things we do for our own satisfaction.

And in June, Shirky is publishing Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, which mines adjacent territory. He argues that the time Americans once spent watching television has been redirected toward activities that are less about consuming and more about engaging—from Flickr and Facebook to powerful forms of online political action. (For an alternate perspective on the influence of the Internet, see Nicholas Carr’s essay) And these efforts aren’t fueled by external rewards but by intrinsic motivation—the joy of doing something for its own sake.

Wired had the two sit down for a conversation about motivation and media, social networking, sitcoms, and why the hell people spend their free time editing Wikipedia.


What I really love in this particular interview is Clay Shirky’s idea of “Cognitive Surplus.” Essentially, what he points out is that people are spending less and less time in front of the television simply absorbing information and more and more time creating and communicating with each other online.

For Shirky, this means that there is a HUGE potential to develop the knowledge of the world. When thinking minds become active instead of passive—something enabled by the Web 2.0 world—we are unleashing unparalleled knowledge that we can take real advantage of.

Cool idea, isn’t it?

Now here’s the hitch: Schools are doing very little to take advantage of this cognitive surplus, are we?

Instead of recognizing that our kids are sitting at home waiting to be connected to one another and giving them meaningful, knowledge driven tasks to interact around, we’re ignoring that potential and leaving our kids up to their own devices online.

My argument—which I’ve pushed ever since creating my first discussion boards for students years ago—is that we need to create opportunities for our kids to interact with school-based content beyond school hours. Creating discussion forums around content is so easy nowadays that it is almost inexcusable for schools to ignore the potential that rests in tapping the cognitive surpluses (surpli?) of our students.

To borrow a cheesy cliche, “If we build it, they will come.”

So the next logical question is what are you doing to give your kids the chance to interact with content beyond the classroom?

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