Skip to content

October 8, 2010

The generous web: Clay Shirky again, on generations, revolutions and Gutenberg

by Mark Meynell

The Blair autobio was far too chunky for me take on the plane to Albania, last week, so instead I took Clay Shirky’s followup to the wonderful HERE COMES EVERYBODY, from which I’ve posted before. He’s called it Cognitive Surplus, which is perhaps rather an intimidating and opaque title. Nevertheless, he’s still his readable, informative and thought-provoking self. It’s perhaps not as ground-breaking as the first one, which his why i gave it 4 not 5 stars. That good old ‘second album syndrome’, I guess. But it is definitely worth a read for any wanting to understand further how the Internet is shaping our lives and cultures.

The general idea is that for the first time in human history, it is possible to harness and exploit the billions of hours of free/leisure time of people separated by oceans for the greater good – through the internet. Here’s a flavour:

The bundle of concepts tied to the word media is unraveling. We need a new conception for the word, one that dispenses with the connotations of ‘something produced by professionals for consumption by amateurs’.

Here’s mine: media is the connective tissue of society.

… The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics. You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any media in the previous five hundred years. Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as copy anymore. Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data. (p54)

His approach this time, bizarrely but convincingly enough, is taken from detective work. In a crime case, police look for the means, motive and opportunity. Thus he concludes, “The fusing of means, motive, and opportunity, creates our cognitive surplus out of the raw material of accumulated free time.” (p184) As a result, he is able to get under the skin of why people invest so much time in social media, from the in(s)ane (lolcats) to the inspiring (Ushahidi).

There were lots of gems. Here are a couple to be getting on with

The Prevailing Dangers of Generational Stereotypes

He discusses the impact of Napster and music file-sharing, and noted the generational fault-lines exposed by divergent reactions to it.

Napster acquired tens of millions of users in less than two years, making it the fastest-growing piece of software of its day. Its astounding success surely said something about the culture, and two conflicting interpretations were advanced in the early 2000s. The first was that young people  had all become morally corrupt, willing to flout the sacred conventions of intellectual property. The second was that young people were so imbued with the spirit of sharing that they were happy to engage in the communal opportunity that Napster offered. The first explanation purported to explain why young people were so willing to take, the other why they were so willing to give. Both explanations couldn’t possibly be correct. In fact, neither of them was correct.

One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirty-somethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twenty-somethings are part of Generation Y, and that both different innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months.

Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do. Human nature changes slowly but includes an incredible range of mechanisms for adapting to our surroundings. (p120)

I love that: astrology for decades instead of months is a brilliant put-down! But Shirky has exposed a dangerous tendency that I see a lot in my circles, not least in preaching…

… the desire to attribute people’s behaviour to innate character rather than to local context runs deep. It runs so deep, in fact, that psychologists have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution is at work when we explain our own behaviour in terms of the constraints on us (‘I didn’t stop to help the stranded driver because I was late for work”) but attribute the same behaviour in others to their character (‘He didn’t stop to help the stranded driver because he’s selfish’). Similarly we fell into the fundamental attribution error when we thought Gen Xers weren’t working hard because they were lazy. …

People in my generation and older often tut-tut about young people’s disclosing so much of their lives on social networks like Facebook, contrasting that behaviour with our own relative virtue in that regard: ‘You exhibitionists! We didn’t behave like that when we were your age!’ This comparison conveniently ignores the fact that we didn’t behave that way because no one offered us the opportunity (and from what I remember of my twenties, I think we would have happily behaved that way if we’d had the chance). (p122)

The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. (p126)

We must all beware of resorting to the Fundamental Attribution Error …

The Unexpected Consequences of Inventing Movable Type

Then, returning to a theme familiar to any who read up on the internet’s social impact, Shirky returns to the effect of the invention in Europe of printing. He points to a factor in Gutenberg’s printing business of which I’d not been aware at all. Not only did he print the bible. He printed indulgences!

Johannes Gutenberg’s best-known work was his forty-two line Bible, a spectacularly beautiful example of early printing. But it was neither his first work nor his most voluminous. (He printed fewer than two hundred copies). That honour instead goes to his printing of indulgences.

[Previously indulgences had to be laboriously handwritten but] Gutenberg’s press flooded the market. In the early 1500s John Tetzel, the head pardoner for German territories, would sweep into a town with a collection of already printed indulgences, hawking them with a phrase usually translated as ‘When a coin a coffer rings/ A soul for heaven springs.’ The nakedly commercial aspects of indulgences, among other things, enraged Martin Luther, who in 1517, launched an attack on the Church in the form of his famous Ninety-five Theses. …

The tool that looked like it would strengthen the social structure of the age instead upended it. From the vantage point of 1450, the new technology seemed to do nothing more than offer the existing society a faster and cheaper way to do what it was already doing. By 1550 it had become apparent that the volume of indulgences had debauched their value, creating “indulgence inflation” – further evidence that abundance can be harder fo a society to deal with than scarcity. Similarly the spread of Bibles wasn’t a case of more of the same, but rather of more is different – the number of Bibles produced increased the range of Bibles produces, with cheap Bibles translated into local languages undermining the interpretative monopoly of the clergy, since churchgoers could now hear what the Bible said int heir own language, and literate citizens could read it for themselves, with no priest anywhere near. By the middle of the century, Luther’s Protestant Reformation had taken hold, and the Church’s role as the pan-European economic, cultural, intellectual, and religious force was ending.

This is the paradox of revolution. The bigger the opportunity offered by new tools, the less completely anyone can extrapolate the future from the previous shape of society. So it is today. (pp187-188)

I read recently of one famous English novelist bemoaning the huge threats to the publishing and book-selling industry posed by e-books. This is true. And many jobs, and even a few professions, will disappear. And many of those people will struggle to find equivalent work in the digitalised equivalents of their profession. But with such innovations and revolutions, there’s not a lot we can do about it. For consumers will always go for whatever is easiest, cheapest, most available. After all, who needs manuscript copyists these days, except for very special occasions like certificates etc? There’s no mass market for them. So, I fear, will it be for ‘real’ books, much though I love them (see my rant about e-books last year). Scary perhaps, but inevitable.

Shirky is always worth listening to and looking out for. He always seems to me to talk sense and bring insight – so all in all, a great read.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,788 other followers

%d bloggers like this: