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Future Guy

Clay Shirky has perfected the art of the bold, meaningless epigram.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Cognitive Surplus

Future Guy

Clay Shirky, 2006

James Duncan Davidson / O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Creativity and Generosity
in a Connected Age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 256 pp., $25.95

Clay Shirky is the Internet’s most prominent ponderer. 

He teaches “Interactive Telecommunications” at New York University’s Tisch School, and when he isn’t teaching, he’s often speaking, on television and radio shows and podcasts, in speeches at technology conferences. He’s a bestselling author: Here Comes Everybody (2008) was translated into Dutch, Korean, Portuguese, and Chinese. He writes for Wired and various technology publications, and is often referenced by their reporters. Every six weeks or so the New York Times quotes Shirky in stories with headlines such as “Why Twitter Will Endure” or “Google Searches for a Foreign Policy.” Here, for instance, is Shirky in October 2008, explaining to Times readers the structural challenges facing newspapers: “The auto industry and the print industry have essentially the same problem. The older customers like the older products and the new customers like the new ones.”

Of course, the auto industry and the print industry are not facing anything like the same problems. Newspapers are suffering because (1) circulation eroded somewhat as readers shifted to online versions of the print product; (2) classified advertising moved to free websites while major ad sales cratered during the recession; and most important, (3) many publishers are saddled with gargantuan debt loads from a spree of expensive newspaper acquisitions in the late ’90s and early 21st century. The auto industry, on the other hand, faces no structural problems: There is no new alternative to the automobile. Car sales declined two years ago because gas prices rose steeply while the economy sputtered. As gas prices eased, sales rebounded. Once the recession ends, the auto market will look much as it did before.

But Shirkyisms—the koans that form his primary mode of communication—aren’t designed to be unpacked. In books, interviews, and speeches, Shirky’s epigrams are meant simultaneously to dazzle and soothe. To witness a Shirkyism (“The Internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics” or “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”) is to be confronted with insights that sound elegantly clever, yet never quite make sense. “Media is the connective tissue of society,” he’ll say. Another time he’ll warn that “No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds.” Really? Not opera or theater or oil-on-canvas or the novel?

Yet it’s not quite fair to hold Shirkyisms to any standard of coherence. Because Clay Shirky isn’t an academic or a public intellectual. He’s a guru. And as you might expect Shirkyisms form the backbone—or maybe the connective tissue—of Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
, where he argues that social networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) will change the world in wonderful ways.

Shirky’s thinking runs like this: Two billion people are now online. Right now most of those people spend their free time watching television. As television watching (which is bad) is replaced by Internet surfing (which is good) people will combine to create worthwhile virtual projects that become civic capital. Shirky’s Exhibit A is
Wikipedia, the estimable online encyclopedia created and maintained by an army of volunteers. Shirky estimates that, to date, Wikipedia has consumed 100 million man-hours of work. By contrast, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television a year. As those hours shift to the Internet, people will band together into working groups and create worthwhile endeavors out of this “cognitive surplus.”

Or as the Shirkyism goes: “The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes.” Because “the radius and half-life of shared effort have moved from household to global scale.” All thanks
to Facebook.

That’s not entirely fair: Shirky means so much more than Facebook. Cognitive Surplus references roughly a dozen websites which Shirky marks as the best fruits of our digital labors. There’s
Ushahidi, an African site which tracks tribal violence in real-time.
Couchsurfing.org helps people who don’t want to pay for hotels find volunteer hosts willing to let them sleep in their living room. The site
patientslikeme.com connects people suffering from the same diseases to one another so they can share information and personal stories.

Shirky allows that some folks squander their cognitive surplus on lesser pursuits. The Internet is stuffed with user-generated juvenilia, such as “lolcats”—where people Photoshop pictures of cats with funny captions—and “fan fiction,” where people write stories about existing fictional characters. (The site
fanfiction.net alone has nearly 500,000 stories based on the Harry Potter franchise.) But Shirky defends even these efforts: “The stupidest possible creative act,” he insists, “is still a creative act.”

It makes sense that Shirky would celebrate creativity in all its forms. He was a fine arts major at Yale, and before he became an Internet guru, he ran an experimental theater group in New York. But he has practical, as well as philosophical, reasons for prizing creativity: namely, that it’s what his audience wants to hear.

In that way, Cognitive Surplus is very much a middle-management business book, always looking to challenge readers (but not too much), confronting them with hard truths that they’re secretly dying to hear. Like all good business books, it has a certain paint-by-numbers structure. Reference to Harvard Business Review essays? Check. Heavy leaning on behavioral economics? Check. Discussion of social psychology experiments? Check. Anecdotes from a nonthreatening countercultural touchstone and story wherein a guileless child provides a stunning philosophical insight? Done and done.

Cognitive Surplus also has the requisite glancing reference to hard science, to give the book a patina of seriousness. For instance, Shirky argues that it is the mass of people on social networks which causes them to behave differently from small, real-world groups: “In the words of the physicist Philip
Anderson,” Shirky says, “ ‘more is
different.’ ” And who could argue with a real, honest-to-blog physicist? Well, Philip Anderson might. Because when Anderson wrote his paper “More Is
Different”—in 1972—he wasn’t talking about the Internet or group dynamics or social phenomena but about particle physics. What’s more, his paper was written in response to what he saw as a fundamental problem in science: people from one discipline trying to superimpose their conceptual frameworks on unrelated disciplines. “Psychology is not applied biology. Nor is biology applied chemistry,” he emphasized. Nor, one might add, is particle physics social network theory.

Be that as it may, a difference in scale might really create a difference in kind when it comes to social networks. But Shirky never bothers to take this misappropriated notion seriously. Let’s suppose that the size of a social network really does transform its potential. Might the scale of the Internet cause transformations that are less beneficial? Is it possible that having, say, two billion self-publishers risks such an avalanche of output that it becomes hard to differentiate the good from the silly, thereby lowering the standard of
middlebrow discourse? Shirky dispenses with this concern in a few brief sentences: “There have always been people willing to argue that an increase in freedom to publish isn’t worth the decrease in average quality,” he says dismissively. A moment later he claims that the ability to self-publish “has value, indeed, because there is no way to filter for quality in advance.” And that settles that.

Shirky does a lot of arguing by fiat. He recently told an interviewer, “I’ve always understood that [the Internet] is a set of trade-offs. So for all the normalization of, say, pedophilia, we also get young, small-town kids growing up gay who now know they’re not abnormal. And it seems to me that the net trade-off of lessening society’s ability to
project a sense of normal that no one actually lives up to is a good thing.”

That’s a staggeringly provincial argument, but provincialism marks a good deal of Shirky’s work. Not only can he not imagine a world outside of urban techno-hipsterism—he often can’t imagine a world that existed the week before yesterday. For instance, he talks about television’s unique role as an opiate of the masses as if the radio had never been invented. He goes on at length about amateurism—the idea that nonprofessionals can make lasting contributions—as though it were an entirely new phenomenon. But the amateur adventurer, writer, and intellectual are not historical inventions sprung from Usenet groups. (To take just the most obvious example, Victorian
Britain—which created much of the modern world—was powered, in large part, by aristocratic amateurs. Large chunks of the globe, for instance, were mapped by “amateur” explorers from the Royal Geographical Society.)

Shirky also fails to understand the moral ambiguity of technology. He spends time with a Pakistani group called Responsible Citizens, which harnessed the power of the web to motivate disaffected Pakistanis to pick up litter and be more civic-minded. He views the group as one of social networking’s great success stories and cautions optimistically, “It’s too soon to handicap the long-term effects of the Responsible Citizens, but without social contagion, their task would be hopeless.” The problem is that Pakistan is on the brink of a very different kind of social transformation these days, and in no small part because the folks on the other side use the Internet, too. 

For example, the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (it carried out the Mumbai bombings in 2008) long kept a website through its parent organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The site was used to create a virtual community for terrorists, allowing them to instruct newcomers, preach to sympathizers, and circulate propaganda for a global audience. (Before Jamaat-ud-Dawa was also declared a terrorist group in 2008 its website was hosted by a company in San Francisco.) Five Americans were arrested in Pakistan in 2009 while training to carry out terror attacks. Their radicalization was also the result of social networking with Pakistani terrorist recruiters. And Shirky can’t claim ignorance about the confrontation of jihad and Western civilization: In a recent interview he boasted that the only TV news network he watches
is al Jazeera.

Shirky never allows that social networking is used for both liberal and illiberal ends. Instead, he confronts skepticism about the technology’s civilizational worth with a Shirkyism: “Upgrading one’s imagination about what is possible is always a leap
of faith.” 

It may be unfair to judge Shirky by the printed word because, like all good gurus, he bases much of his appeal on the presentation. Watch his most recent TED address (from this past June), and you’ll see a master performer. Shirky struts around the stage like an antimatter Tom Wolfe: bald, in a sleek, black suit, white shirt buttoned all the way up, no tie. His certitude is awesome to behold. One former student describes his presence thus: “You sit in his class for an hour, and you feel like a superstar, like you can understand things in a much clearer way.” Or as a reporter put it in the course of an admiring profile, Shirky speaks with “such authority that were he to tell you the sun actually sets in the east, you might almost believe him.”

And at the end of the day, it’s all about belief. Not long ago Shirky was explaining to the Guardian why it’s important for people to pay attention to tech gurus: “If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian Internet bulls—t,” he said, “and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected skepticism, the Californian bulls—t would still be a better predictor of the future.” That’s not true either, of course. But it’s a great line.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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