The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'clay shirky'
Texan Cyberpunk sci-fi author turned father of the Viridian pro-green design/technology movement turned Belgrade-based design theorist Bruce Sterling gives his annual state-of-the-world address to the Inkwell forum. It's focussed mostly on the economic cataclysm in progress, and it's full of the sorts of apposite powder-dry black humour you'd expect from him:
Do we HAVE to talk about the economy this year? I'm wondering what conceivable event could overshadow the fiscal crisis. Maybe a cozy little nuclear war? An Indo-Pakistani nuclear war might conceivably take a *back page* to the fiscal crisis.
I'm a bohemian type, so I could scarcely be bothered to do anything "financially sound" in my entire adult life. Last year was the first year when I've felt genuinely sorry for responsible, well-to-do people. Suddenly they've got the precariousness of creatives, of the underclass, without that gleeful experience of decades spent living-it-up.
If the straights were not "prone to hostility" before that experience, they might well be so after it, because they've got a new host of excellent reasons. The sheer galling come-down of watching the Bottom Line, the Almighty Dollar, revealed as a papier-mache pinata. It's like somebody burned their church.After indulging in terriblisma for a while, Sterling turns his attention to Dmitry Orlov's prediction of the US disintegrating, and ideas for a "new localism" that might arise in the event of catastrophic collapse:
In any case, after eight glum years of watching Bush and his neocons methodically wreck the Republic, both Kunstler and Robb have gotten really big on American localism -- "resilient" localism. Kunstler has this painterly, small-town-America, Thoreauvian thing going on, kinda locavore voluntary simplicity, with lots of time for... I dunno, group chorale singing. Kunstler seems kinda hung up on the singing effort, somehow... Whereas Robb has a military background and is more into a gated-community, bug-out-bag, militia rapid-response thing.
Certainly neither of these American visions look anything like what happened to Russia. As Orlov accurately points out, in the Russian collapse, if you were on a farm or in some small neighborly town, you were toast. The hustlers in the cities were the ones with inventive opportunities, so they were the ones getting by.
So the model polity for local urban resilience isn't Russia. I'm inclined to think the model there is Italy. Italy has had calamitous Bush-levels of national incompetence during almost its entire 150-year national existence.Meanwhile, Clay Shirky gives his predictions for 2009. Whether or not we're all toast, a lot of the old media, such as newspapers, seem to be:
The great misfortune of newspapers in this era is that they were such a good idea for such a long time that people felt the newspaper business model was part of a deep truth about the world, rather than just the way things happened to be. It's like the fall of communism, where a lot of the eastern European satellite states had an easier time because there were still people alive who remembered life before the Soviet Union - nobody in Russia remembered it. Newspaper people are like Russians, in a way.
Why pay for it at all? The steady loss of advertising revenue, accelerated by the recession, has normalised the idea that it's acceptable to move to the web. Even if we have the shallowest recession and advertising comes back as it inevitably does, more of it will go to the web. I think that's it for newspapers. What we saw happen to the Christian Science Monitor [the international paper shifted its daily news operation online] is going to happen three or four dozen times (globally) in the next year. The 500-year-old accident of economics occasioned by the printing press - high upfront cost and filtering happening at the source of publication - is over. But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button.Shirky's not one for terriblisma, so not much about social collapse, cannibalism or killer caravans marauding the post-apocalyptic landscape there. For that, you'll have to read Charlie Brooker's column:
Dim your lights. Here's the highlights reel. The worst recession in 60 years. Broken windows and artless graffiti. Howling winds blowing empty cans past boarded-up shopfronts. Feral children eating sloppy handfuls of decomposed-pigeon-and-baked-bean mulch scraped from the bottom of dustbins in a desperate bid to survive. The pound worth less than the acorn. The City worth less than the pound. Your house worth so little it'll collapse out of shame, crushing you in your bed. Not that you'll die peacefully in your sleep - no, you'll be wide awake with fear, worrying about the situation in the Middle East at the precise moment a chunk of ceiling plaster the size of a flagstone tumbles from on high to flatten your skull like a biscuit under a shoe, sending your brain twizzling out of your earholes like pink-grey toothpaste squeezed from a tube. All those language skills and precious memories splattered over your pillows. It'll ruin the bedclothes. And instead of buying expensive new ones, your grieving, impoverished relatives will have to handwash those bedclothes in cold water for six hours to shift the most upsetting stains before passing them down to your orphaned offspring, who are fated to sleep on them in a disused underground station for the rest of their lives, shivering in the dark as they hear bombs dipped in bird flu dropping on the shattered remains of the desiccated city above.
(via Boing Boing)
Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, posits an interesting theory: that entertainment television, an arguably stupefying medium, arose in the 20th century as a temporary coping mechanism for dealing with a surplus of free time and cognitive capacity, a way for people to harmlessly manage free time they had no traditional uses for. A parallel he quotes was the explosion in consumption of gin (in those days a disreputable, highly intoxicating drink) during the mass migration from the countryside to the cities in Britain:
The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.Television, Shirky argues, fulfils the same role. During the 20th century, a majority of the population found itself with something they didn't have before: free time. Since there was no use for this, it was more of a crisis than an opportunity, and once again, society turned to an intoxicant as a means of control:
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.Now, Shirky claims, society is figuring out ways to use surplus cognitive capacity more productively than by watching sitcoms. With the internet, people are starting to turn the television off and use their time, if not more productively, more interactively. This can take the form of amateur collective efforts such as Wikipedia or of pasting captions onto photographs of cats or playing multiplayer games. (Granted, in this early stage, even contributions to Wikipedia often are about TV shows, but this will probably pass):
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.This is not a passing phase, Shirky asserts, but a profound social shift; he cites as an example an anecdote illustrating that young children today are already in a post-television mindset, in which a one-directional consumeristic medium is seen as broken, rather than just as "the way things are and have always been":
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."Will, in a generation or two, our descendents look back on the entire 20th century as an age of stupidity and conformism, sort of like the mythical Leave-it-to-Beaver 1950s writ large? (Assuming, of course, they're not too busy avoiding starvation or fighting over the Earth's remaining oil supplies or something.)
(via Boing Boing)
A fascinating article from Clay Shirky on why A Group Is Its Own Enemy, exploring some of the patterns of human behaviour in groups (in the context of "social software").
The article makes some interesting points: there are 3 patterns which pop up in groups: sex talk/flirting, vilification of external enemies (e.g., Penguinheads railing against Microsoft, or indeed left-wing and right-wing bloggers accusing each other of eating babies) and quasi-religious veneration of figures beyond criticism (i.e., try criticising part of an author's work on a group full of his fans and you'll get flamed for your diligence). Also, anarchy doesn't scale, and neither does naïve direct democracy; any group beyond the limits of a small social group (which Shirky doesn't mention, but which Malcolm Gladwell places at 150 people in The Tipping Point) needs a constitution, some form of hierarchy with different strata of participation and decidedly undemocratic and perhaps authoritarian powers for the core group (the "Listmoms" of a certain mailing list I'm on would be one example), in the interest of defending the group and its culture. Examples of the failure of egalitarian direct democracy include a 1970s bulletin board having been shut down after becoming infested with high-schoolers, and a campaign by Chinese Internet users to vote down the creation of soc.culture.tibet:
Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.
Shirky also makes the point that users should have identities (or "handles") they can invest reputation in, that there be some sort of member-in-good-standing mechanism, and that there be barriers to participation. And he knows; having been on Usenet since the early nineties, he watched it implode under the influx of The September That Never Ended.
All in all, an article well worth reading, whether you're a social-software/smart-mobs digerato, an anarchist/libertarian social theorist, a scifi writer looking to build a plausible fictional utopia, or just a student of human psychology. (via Graham)