Net Positive: A Conversation with Clay Shirky

The Inter­net has brought about a sea change in the way soci­eties orga­nize and oper­ate. Few schol­ars antic­i­pat­ed the trend soon­er, or artic­u­lat­ed it with greater force and opti­mism, than Clay Shirky. In his 2008 book, Here Comes Every­body: The Pow­er of Orga­niz­ing with­out Orga­ni­za­tions, Shirky described how new social struc­tures were being cre­at­ed spon­ta­neous­ly as a result of the Web’s astound­ing abil­i­ty to enable peo­ple to coordinate—instantly and across distances—not only with oth­er indi­vid­u­als, but with the mass­es. Shirky’s new book, Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus: Cre­ativ­i­ty and Gen­eros­i­ty in a Con­nect­ed Age, devel­ops his ideas fur­ther. He sees a rev­o­lu­tion in the way peo­ple are begin­ning to pool their free time. “Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus,” he says, “is essen­tial­ly answer­ing the ques­tion, What is Wikipedia made of? What is Lin­ux made of? What is YouTube made of? It is made of the coor­di­nat­ed con­tri­bu­tions of the world’s con­nect­ed cit­i­zen­ry.”

With the help of IBM researcher Mar­tin Wat­ten­berg, Shirky cal­cu­lates that the cumu­la­tive effort invest­ed in Wikipedia since its inception—“every edit made to every arti­cle, and every argu­ment to those edits, for every lan­guage that Wikipedia exists in”—totals about 100 mil­lion hours of intel­lec­tu­al labor. Com­pare that to the 200 bil­lion hours Amer­i­cans spend every year watch­ing tele­vi­sion, writes Shirky. That’s about 2,000 Wikipedias’ worth of time expend­ed every year, in one coun­try.

Shirky claims that younger gen­er­a­tions are tran­si­tion­ing from pas­sive TV-watch­ing to active online engage­ment, and there­fore com­mu­nal projects like Wikipedia are the wave of the future. His crit­ics have coun­tered that the evi­dence does not sup­port his descrip­tion of real­i­ty: Sur­veys indi­cate that the aver­age amount of time peo­ple spend watch­ing tele­vi­sion has con­tin­ued to rise since the arrival of the Internet—so if young peo­ple are spend­ing more time online, they are like­ly spend­ing less time active­ly engaged in the phys­i­cal world around them.

But Shirky is undaunt­ed. “One thing that makes the cur­rent age remark­able,” he writes, “is that we can now treat free time as a gen­er­al social asset that can be har­nessed for large, com­mu­nal­ly cre­at­ed projects, rather than as a set of indi­vid­ual min­utes to be whiled away one per­son at a time.”

Shirky is cur­rent­ly spend­ing time away from his post as a teacher in the Inter­ac­tive Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Pro­gram at New York Uni­ver­si­ty to serve as a vis­it­ing fel­low at Har­vard University’s Berk­man Cen­ter for Inter­net & Soci­ety. We met up with him there last week for a brief inter­view.

Open Cul­ture: You’re well known as an opti­mist when it comes to technology’s effect on soci­ety. As a con­se­quence, you’ve drawn a lot of crit­i­cism from the oth­er side. Do you ever feel like a light­ning rod for Lud­dites?

Clay Shirky: I’ve cer­tain­ly become a light­ning rod, which is rel­a­tive­ly recent. I should say also, I’m not an opti­mist about tech­nol­o­gy full stop. I am an opti­mist about democ­ra­tiz­ing media. For instance, the effects of tele­vi­sion seem to me to be far more com­pli­cat­ed and far less pos­i­tive than the effects of the print­ing press. Even though, or per­haps because, we spend more time watch­ing tele­vi­sion than we do with writ­ten mate­r­i­al. But obvi­ous­ly one of the effects of the print­ing press was to democ­ra­tize pro­duc­tion, to increase dra­mat­i­cal­ly the num­ber of voic­es avail­able for pub­lic dis­course. Tele­vi­sion, much less so. So I’m not a tech­no-opti­mist full stop. I am an opti­mist about democ­ra­tiz­ing media tech­nolo­gies. I have become a light­ning rod in a way that I find a lit­tle bit dis­ori­ent­ing, because I’ll some­times read about myself and see opin­ions attrib­uted to me that I haven’t actu­al­ly expressed, but because they were expressed by oth­er opti­mists we are kind of lumped togeth­er. My inter­pre­ta­tion of this is that, for a long time the peo­ple who believed that this change in the media land­scape was good sim­ply weren’t tak­en seri­ous­ly. The idea that this was going to lead to any kind of sig­nif­i­cant restruc­tur­ing of any aspect of soci­ety was just seen as a kind of a fringe sen­si­bil­i­ty. I think with the col­lapse of the main­stream newspaper’s busi­ness mod­el, there is now an exam­ple in which the Web is demon­stra­bly trans­form­ing the intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al land­scape. And so I think that part of the rea­son for this light­ning rod thing for me and for oth­er people—for J.Z. (Jonathan Zit­train), for Yochai Ben­kler—is that there’s now a broad swath of soci­ety who doesn’t think about the effects of tech­nol­o­gy but nev­er­the­less has come to believe that the web real­ly does mean a restruc­tur­ing. Some of the light­ning rod stuff is essen­tial­ly that con­ver­sa­tion now spread­ing out to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. I think that this phase will prob­a­bly last a year or two and then we’ll be on to some kind of post-light­ning rod con­ver­sa­tion.

Open Cul­ture: Where do you think the con­ver­sa­tion is head­ed?

Clay Shirky: Well, I think it’s head­ed around norms and assump­tions. Our expe­ri­ence of print culture—that’s very much shaped by things like libraries and card cat­a­logues, you know. How we inter­act with print. But libraries and card cat­a­logs and book­stores and page num­bers and chap­ter titles and all those kinds of things that we take for grant­ed, those weren’t respons­es to print. Those were respons­es to the prob­lems that print caused. And so what we see is that the cul­ture that grew up around the print­ed word was in many cas­es a cul­ture that was respon­sive to the dif­fi­cul­ties of inte­grat­ing print into soci­ety. And we now have this dig­i­tal medi­um that allows for all kinds of new com­mu­nica­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties, and I think the con­ver­sa­tion runs to: What are the insti­tu­tions and assump­tions that we build around the Inter­net, part­ly to take advan­tage of its pos­i­tive effects and part­ly to mit­i­gate the dif­fi­cul­ties it caus­es.

Open Cul­ture: Is it too ear­ly to ven­ture any sug­ges­tions in that regard?

Clay Shirky: No, of course not. When you’re ven­tur­ing a sug­ges­tion, usu­al­ly what you’re talk­ing about is tak­ing spe­cial cas­es and extrap­o­lat­ing. Two of them are that we’ve lost the abil­i­ty to say which groups get to form and which don’t. In a world where form­ing a group was hard, soci­ety had a lot of con­trols. It was easy if you were a Methodist to find oth­er Methodists. You’d go to the Methodist church at 9 o’clock on Sun­day morn­ing and you could find them eas­i­ly enough. If you were an athe­ist it was very dif­fi­cult to find oth­er athe­ists. One of the star­tling effects of the so-called “New Athe­ist Move­ment” is not just that there are indi­vid­ual athe­ist voic­es in the pub­lic sphere, but that oth­er athe­ists can now come out of the wood­work and inter­act with one another—on Richard Dawkins’s blog, on P.Z. Myers’s blog—and so it cre­ates group-form­ing as a new pos­si­bil­i­ty. So soci­ety is just going to see a lot more of those kinds of groups, that are not com­plete­ly social­ly sanc­tioned, nev­er­the­less form.

Open Cul­ture: Do you see any ill effects from this? For exam­ple, as tech­nol­o­gy has pro­gressed, peo­ple have increas­ing­ly shed their inher­it­ed affil­i­a­tions, like fam­i­ly and neigh­bors, to forge these new bonds with like-mind­ed peo­ple, often strangers. They share infor­ma­tion and encour­age­ment, which enhances their abil­i­ty to act effec­tive­ly. But this works just as well for pedophiles as it does for phil­an­thropists, doesn’t it?

Clay Shirky: If you believe that human nature is exact­ly even­ly divid­ed between good and bad, and that proso­cial norms are neu­tral with respect to out­come, then the Inter­net would be a com­plete­ly neu­tral tech­nol­o­gy. If you believe that humans are basi­cal­ly bad, that proso­cial norms are almost invari­ably used to cre­ate group-ori­ent­ed neg­a­tives, then you would believe the Inter­net was bad. If you believe what I do, that proso­cial norms tend towards pos­i­tive and coop­er­a­tive uses, then you would con­clude that, on bal­ance, height­ened abil­i­ty for groups to oper­ate would lead to an improved soci­ety. So it’s not that the tech­nol­o­gy works bet­ter for phil­an­thropists than pedophiles, it’s that soci­ety is more giv­en to phil­an­thropy as a gen­er­al­ly embraced norm than pedophil­ia. And expos­ing your­self as a phil­an­thropist cre­ates none of the con­straints that expos­ing your­self as a pedophile cre­ates. So I think that, on bal­ance, the effect is pos­i­tive, even giv­ing the coor­di­na­tion tools to groups that have neg­a­tive goals—either specif­i­cal­ly neg­a­tive goals, as with ter­ror­ist groups, or groups which have norms which are so out­side the main­stream, like pedophil­ia.

Open Cul­ture: If we weak­en our ancient social insti­tu­tions, how will we hold the cen­ter togeth­er?

Clay Shirky: Many of the social insti­tu­tions peo­ple are com­plain­ing about are, you know, a third of the nation watch­ing John­ny Car­son. It’s fun­ny. When I grew up, all the hand­wring­ing about the media envi­ron­ment was, “Oh, we have this ter­ri­ble homog­e­niz­ing cul­ture.” Now sud­den­ly the thing we’re sup­posed to be wor­ried about is, we have this ter­ri­bly de-homog­e­niz­ing cul­ture. The arc of modernity—and I mean lit­er­al­ly from the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion on—is the arc of cos­mopoli­tanism. It is the arc of dis­man­tling soci­ety and cul­ture as a sin­gle, whole way of doing things—where every­one has one reli­gion and every­one has one pat­tern of living—towards dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased het­ero­gene­ity, of tol­er­ance and par­tic­i­pa­tion. There’s no grand arrow of his­to­ry where all of this stuff unfolds exact­ly the same way and exact­ly the same time. In this coun­try, eman­ci­pa­tion of African Amer­i­cans hap­pened on a dif­fer­ent sched­ule with dif­fer­ent results as eman­ci­pa­tion of women’s abil­i­ty to vote, own prop­er­ty and par­tic­i­pate. What we’re see­ing now, I think, is a progress towards greater free­dom of con­scious­ness and greater intel­lec­tu­al range, both inputs and out­puts. Peo­ple can find more things to read and watch across a wider range, and can say and do more things in response than we’ve had before. And that plain­ly does dis­man­tle some of the pre­vi­ous sol­i­dar­i­ty goods in soci­ety. We don’t have a world where a quar­ter of the nation watch­es John­ny Car­son. But we attach our alle­giance to the sys­tem as a whole, which is to say, the idea of being part of a glob­al net­work where peo­ple care for one anoth­er. One of the things that has hap­pened in our life­time is the incred­i­ble respon­sive­ness to over­seas dis­as­ters. There was an earth­quake in Haiti, there was awful flood­ing in Pak­istan, and the sense of “Some­one needs to do some­thing” is no longer con­duct­ed in the hall­ways of the U.N., but goes out as a direct appeal to the pop­u­lace. So as a trade-off for the loss of this “sol­i­dar­i­ty, good-of-every­body-watch­ing-the-same-TV-shows,” or what have you, the embrace is to a poten­tial­ly larg­er loy­al­ty, to the idea of a kind of glob­al poli­ty. And that’s in line with what’s been hap­pen­ing, very slow­ly but fair­ly steadi­ly, since the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion.

Open Cul­ture: What’s next for you? Are you work­ing on a new project?

Clay Shirky: I got ten years of work out of the intu­ition that the Inter­net was get­ting more social, but I’m done with that now. I don’t have any­body to fight with any­more. That the­sis is sort of broad­ly agreed to. The piece I’m work­ing on now is specif­i­cal­ly around jour­nal­ism. My cur­rent for­mu­la­tion is that mar­kets sup­ply less account­abil­i­ty than democ­ra­cies demand—that if you leave the pres­ence of account­abil­i­ty to an entire­ly mar­ket-dri­ven press corps, you get less cov­er­age than democ­ra­cies need to sur­vive. And we’ve had all of these ways in the past of sub­si­diz­ing that, right? So broad­cast news had to be sub­si­dized because the FCC said so when they hand­ed out the licens­es, and news­pa­pers sub­si­dized it because they had essen­tial­ly enjoyed local monop­o­lies but were rel­a­tive­ly free of too much inter­fer­ence by adver­tis­ers. But a lot of those old sub­si­dies are break­ing. So the adver­tis­ing sub­si­dies that news­pa­pers enjoyed, and the sub­si­dies that were essen­tial­ly required by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment of broad­cast out­lets, are all going away at the same time, and they’re all going away for the same rea­son, which is to say, none of those sub­si­dies sur­vive abun­dance. So the ques­tion I’m ask­ing myself is—assuming this hypoth­e­sis is right—what are oth­er ways that soci­ety can sub­si­dize the kind of jour­nal­ism that leads to account­abil­i­ty of elites, prin­ci­pal­ly politi­cians but also busi­ness and reli­gious elites? I don’t know the answer to that. There’s a lot of inter­est­ing exper­i­ments: ProP­ub­li­ca,, GroundReport. But that’s the ques­tion I’m turn­ing my atten­tion to.

This arti­cle was con­tributed by Mike Springer, a jour­nal­ist in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts.

Pho­to copy­right Michael Springer/Gamma Presse

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