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<nettime> Weekly Standard: Shirkyism
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<nettime> Weekly Standard: Shirkyism


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

  Jonathan V. Last

   November 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08

   Cognitive Surplus: 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 

   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

   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 

   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.

   Copyright 2010 Weekly Standard LLC.

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