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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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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 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.)

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