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Political Implications of the Cognitive Surplus

BY Luigi Montanez | Thursday, May 8 2008

A new meme is spreading around the Tubes, and it’s a good one. Clay Shirky, part sociologist and part technologist, has coined the term “Cognitive Surplus”. Shirky, the author of the must-read Here Comes Everybody, gave a talk the other week on the topic, and his own words best explain the concept:

The implications of this idea in the political arena are already becoming apparent. Uber-blogger Chris Bowers has been writing on OpenLeft on this very concept. Recent history proves Shirky’s point: In 2003, Howard Dean supporters who rallied around the candidate’s fierce opposition to the Iraq War used their Cognitive Surplus to organize themselves on, create (along with Clark supporters) the Netroots, and donate an unprecedented amount of dollars and volunteer hours. Between 2004 and 2006, many of those supporters turned to local politics, helping run the campaigns of down-ballot candidates, and in some cases, running for office themselves. And of course in 2007 and 2008, the campaigns of Barack Obama on the left and Ron Paul on the right have harnessed an untapped Cognitive Surplus to awaken the political consciousness of huge swaths of the citizenry.

The pattern is clear: More Americans are taking a proactive role in their politics, and social technologies are helping them do it. As Shirky talks about above, we are producing and sharing, not just consuming.

Since you’re reading this blog, none of this is completely new to you. But the Washington establishment seems clueless to this growing trend. A recent Bloomberg News article, titled Obama’s Gigantic Database May Make Him Party’s Power Broker, illustrates how stuck in the last century the Beltway consulting class appears to be.

The article discusses the massive supporter list the Obama campaign has built for itself. To be sure, the list is unprecedented. The membership of is pegged at an astonishing 800,000, which would translate into a broader email list of at least 8 million. But throughout the article, the Obama list is emphasized to be a mere vehicle for fundraising. An ATM machine.

McIntyre, a Republican and former chief national spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the data entered by 800,000 names on[sic] may be worth as much as $200 million.


Even as Obama’s interactive databases prove to be efficient ways to energize volunteers, their ability to raise large amounts of money may outlast the current campaign, said Tad Devine, an independent media consultant.

“That’s really what we are talking about here,” said Devine, a former strategist for Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “We are talking about a fundraising network that will far surpass the dominance that the Republicans held in the ‘80s and even in to the ‘90s.”

No, that’s not what we’re talking about, actually. The citizen is no longer a mere consumer. What we’re talking about is a social network (a real-world one) whose power is rooted in its ability to take action. Obama has built a network that knows how to knock on doors, make phone calls, drive people to the polls, and win elections. Via, the campaign has an even better type of data than consumer data: producer data. The campaign knows who has set up groups and events, who’s been making phone calls, who goes to other states to canvass, who’s signed up for voter registration drives, etc.

Just as a four year old child expects all media to be interactive, the American people are beginning to expect politics to be hands-on. Civic duty is no longer confined to casting a ballot on Election Day, or cutting a check after receiving a piece of direct mail. Political activism is no longer the domain of a few die-hard (and kind of weird) party activists and political junkies. As the Obama campaign has proven, it’s something within the grasp of all Americans, because with the help of social technologies political activism can now be on our own terms. Here comes everybody, indeed.