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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 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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