3 x 3 = 9x
The Guardian Saturday Poem

Kayaking

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).

*****

Hope. At the ICA, Clay said that he is no longer a cyber-utopian (he’s said this on numerous other occasions, too: eg, see David Weinberger’s notes on Shirky’s talk at the Berkman Center), and in the book he addresses this directly, in the context of institutions and their value:

This is not to say that corporations and governments are going to wither away. Though some of the early utopianism around new communications tools suggested that we were heading into some sort of post-hierarchical paradise, that's not what's happening now and it's not going to happen. None of the absolute advantages of institutions like businesses or schools or governments have disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared — relative, that is, to the direct effect of the people they represent. (23)

(Compare what he said last June about expertise: ‘Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline.’ And here he is, in the book, talking about youth: ‘young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do. I’m old enough to know a lot of things just from life experience. … In the last fifteen years I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because they have stopped being true. … My students … don’t have to unlearn those things, because they have never had to learn them in the first place. The advantage of youth, however, is relative, not absolute’, 303–4.)

Cyber-utopian he may not be, but there’s plenty of hope and idealism here (and I’m not using ‘idealism’ negatively). The section (chapter 5) focusing on Wikipedia, ‘perhaps the most famous example of distributed collaboration today’, which was very helpful to have to hand whilst writing the material for our first year’s course on Wikipedia (see here and here), extols a living process of editorial composition (‘process not product, always unfinished’, 119) in a project that feels new to many of us but old to my 14 year-old students (it’s half as old as they are). The faith Clay shows here is inspiring, even if I come away thinking that we still have a lot to learn about how Wikipedia works. (And as for how it will work …)

Highlighted bits of this chapter for me include, memorably, ‘a wiki is a hybrid of tool and community … [it] augments community rather than replacing it’ (136, 137). I like that.

Social tools: group action just got easier. In his talk at Harvard, Shirky sets out very clearly, within the first few minutes of speaking, the momentousness of what the web is enabling: ‘we’re living through the largest increase in human expressive capability in history’. He singles out four other revolutions which compete with this: the invention of the printing press and movable type (taken as a broad period of innovation); the telegraph and the telephone (again, taken as one broad period); recorded media of all types — images, sound, moving images, moving images and sound; broadcast (images and sound). He notes the curious asymmetry here: of these four, the ones that create groups don’t create two-way communication, and the ones that create two-way communication don’t create groups. Either you had broadcasting/publishing (eg, TV, magazine), where the broadcast was from centre-to-edge and the relationship was between producer and consumer (one-to-many); or you had the telephone — two-way conversation, but no group (one-to-one). And then there’s now. We have a network that is ‘natively good at group forming’ (many-to-many).

Much of this is also found in the book (106–7).

*****

Earlier days. I came to really use (ie, read and write to) the web when I started blogging, in November 2003. Compared to savvier friends, this is very recent and, consequently, I’m glad for those parts in the book where Clay talks a little about the history of web and net. For example, in Chapter 4 he discusses the ‘early days of weblogs (prior to 2002, roughly)’ when ‘there was a remarkable and loose-jointed conversation among webloggers of all stripes’, when ‘weblogging was mainly an interactive pursuit’ (which perhaps explains something of what Doc Searls is missing in blogging today). He’s good on cyberspace: ‘The idea of cyberspace made sense when the population of the internet had a few million users; in that world social relations online really were separate from offline ones … an accident of partial adoption. Though the internet began to function in its earliest form in 1969, it was not until 1999 that any country had a majority of its citizens online. … In the developed world, the experience of the average twenty-five year-old is one of substantial overlap between online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great … both the word and the concept of “cyberspace” have fallen into disuse. The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life’ (195–6).

The note to page 281 is a glimpse back into the world of Usenet: ‘one of the three great global experiments in social tools prior to the invention of the Web. (The other two were e-mail discussion lists and online communities such as the WELL and ECHO.) At the height of its popularity in 1994, usenet was at the core of most users' experience of the internet’.

*****

Other bits I enjoyed:

‘A profession exists to solve a hard problem … [and] becomes, for its members, a way of understanding their world’ (57–8). Most ‘exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management’ (57) and its ‘members have a tendency to equate provisional solutions to particular problems with deep truths about the world’ (59). Then, with new technologies, the profession that seemed ‘like a fixed and abiding category … turns out to be tied to an accidental scarcity’ (76).

‘Two things are true about the remaking of the European intellectual landscape during the Protestant Reformation: first, it was not caused by the invention of movable type, and second, it was possible only after the invention of movable type’ (67).

‘small group communications and large broadcast outlets all exist as part of a single interconnected ecosystem’ (99). ‘When people talk about user-generated content, they are describing ways that users create and share media with one another, with no professionals anywhere in sight. Seen this way, the idea of user-generated-content is actually not just a personal theory of creative capabilities but a social theory of media relations.’ (83)

‘Every web page is a latent community.’ (102)

‘Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. … a tool … has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming.’ (105)

‘What we are witnessing today is a difference in the degree of sharing so large it becomes a difference in kind.’ (149)

‘social tools don’t create collective action — they merely remove the obstacles to it. … This is why many of the significant changes are based … on simple, easy-to-use tools like email, mobile phones and websites, because these are the tools most people have access to and … are comfortable using in their daily lives’ (159–60). (Cp Chris: ‘Tools are zuhanden — ready to hand. They should disappear in use, they aspire to be forgotten, but are absolutely necessary and useful.’)

‘To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly.’ (171)

*****

Cognitive surplus. Clay’s talk, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus (transcript here), which was given after his book was published but is of a piece with it, was at first received rapturously and was publicised widely online. Its argument needs no rehearsing here. The criticism of TV — as a mask for the cognitive surplus, as something watched mindlessly and passively — is bound up with an apparent attitude to consumption that has itself been criticised effectively by (for example) Chris in his post, everything i.e. anything: ‘Nothing is worth creating if it isn’t consumed (yes, yes, there’s gain in the process of making, or craft, also). … It would be great if people did create more, and especially felt empowered to create, change, edit, curate, but we can’t expect them to do that without consumption and reflection’. (See also Tom’s Consumption is also about choice: ‘the world Shirky describes as preferable to the constant passivity of TV is not one of constant production, constant creation, but one where “passive” and “engaged” are two ends of a sliding scale - and that it’s the inner of that scale, not the edges, that is most commonly inhabited’.)

(In fact, I don’t think Clay is anti-consumption, but the language he uses can, again, create an after-effect that isn’t justified by the full text: ‘media is actually a triathlon, it's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share’.)

And TV? Was watching it always such a lonely, passive thing? As Ian points out, until multiple sets appeared in homes watching TV was a family affair. (That could, and did, cut both ways. I came to find family viewing frequently oppressive.) This is a good place to recall something Warren Ellis wrote back in 2006:

Nigel Kneale died today, at the age of 84. Best known for his creation of the four QUATERMASS serials, Nigel Kneale, along with producer Rudolph Cartier, essentially invented adult science fiction and horror on television. He was also a clever and sensitive adapter of other works for tv, such as 1984 and LOOK BACK IN ANGER, and a brutal and pioneering satirist in his plays for television, perhaps most famously for his YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS, predicting the “Big Brother” shows from 1968. ... It’s hard to imagine, now, the impact that the first three QUATERMASS stories had. For six weeks, the country would go home on QUATERMASS night. Pubs would empty out. In those early days of television, an unapologetically adult, complex and weird piece of speculative fiction was common culture. When tv people in the States tell me that the masses “just don’t get” science fiction, this is what I tell them: that before the cast of THE X-FILES was even born, Britain used to shut down on QUATERMASS night, and it’s all people would talk about the next day. And that was down to Nigel Kneale, last of a generation of writers for British television who were determined that this common culture should always be entertaining, intelligent, challenging and groundbreaking.

(Can social tools make TV social again? The Twitter backchannel.)

My own memory of TV from my childhood is so close to Douglas Adams’ view of it (‘during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment’) I want to try very hard not to overlook what television did, and can still, achieve. (Ian again: ‘I’d take issue with the whole idea of TV programmes as something monolithic and deadening. “Cosmos”, deadening? “Life on Earth”? “Civilisation”? TV can be massively inspirational’). Everyone should read Stephen Fry on the future of public service broadcasting (video; audio). Describing his TV during his school years, ‘a cultural revolution of astounding depth, variety, imagination and dynamism’, he concludes:

Many of us are likely, whatever our professions, to have an attachment to the kind of broadcasting we grew up with, a fierce pride in the staggering history of quality and innovation that has characterized British television and radio for fifty years.

As for Clay’s talk, I think Ed Cone has it right in his comment on Nick Carr's Gilligan’s web (comment dated May 16, 2008 09:05 AM):

Clay made a clever if hyperbolic argument about the creativity unleashed by the web. Nick wittily pointed out some of the hyperbole -- but one needn't be a kool-aid drinking web theologizer to recognize the cleverer parts of Clay's argument. So, yes: on the scale of world-healing goodness to which we all so clearly aspire, giving blood to the homeless trumps contributing an article to Wikipedia, which may have more social value than watching Gilligan's Island, which itself is roughly equivalent to giggling at lolcats or pursuing this particular thread much further.

Enough. I’ll be commending and recommending Clay’s talk for a long time to come. He’s a born, and inspiring, story-teller who knows how to exhort and you need to take this in that spirit:

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment … just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing. … when people ask me what we’re doing … that’s what I’m going to tell them: We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I'm betting the answer is yes.

*****

Whither? 2005, Yochai Benkler, in Open-source economics, ‘explains how collaborative projects like Wikipedia and Linux represent the next stage of human organization. By disrupting traditional economic production, copyright law and established competition, they're paving the way for a new set of economic laws, where empowered individuals are put on a level playing field with industry giants’.

My belief is that Wikipedia’s success dramatizes … a change in the nature of authority, moving from trust inhering in guarantees offered by institutions to probabilities created by processes. — Clay Shirky, Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise (2006)

This is new. We have never before had a single platform which could scale from conversation to broadcast and all points between, but social media gives us that -- it's like your telephone could turn into a radio, depending on how you configured it. The internet is in a way the first thing that really deserves the label ‘media’. It is a truly general-purpose mediating layer, one that can hold multiple types of content, created and distributed for a huge variety of reasons and in a huge variety of ways, ways that can’t be fit into the old mode of “content”, where one group creates and another merely consumes. What I’ve discovered both as a participant and observer of social uses of media is that no one pattern of use is as interesting as the incredible flexibility and re-combinability of all the patterns together … — Clay Shirky, at the Penguin blog (2008)

Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right – “Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up.” It’s not easy to set up a conference call, but it’s very easy to email five of your friends and say “Hey, where are we going for pizza?” So ridiculously easy group forming is really news. We’ve had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we’ve only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we’re just finding out what works. We’re still learning how to make these kinds of things. — Clay Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy (2003) 

Our future can be kept generative only if we can continue to see the Internet’s invitation to be participants in its use, rather than consumers of it. The path forward is illuminated by the coupling of technological tools – like wikis – that have promoted openness, with social customs and law – like those of Wikipedia – that solicit people to take an active part in building the world they want, rather than simply paying for it and expecting others to do the rest. — Jonathan Zittrain: The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It (2008)

To put this metaphorically, we are not driving a car, with gas, brakes, reverse and a lot of choice as to route. We are steering a kayak, pushed rapidly and monotonically down a route determined by the environment. We have a (very small) degree of control over our course in this particular stretch of river, and that control does not extend to being able to reverse, stop, or even significantly alter the direction we’re moving in. — Clay Shirky, Folksonomies are a forced move: A response to Liz (2005)

The dramatic improvement in our social tools … makes our control over those tools much more like steering a kayak. … The invention of tools that facilitate group formation is less like ordinary technological change and more like an event, something that has already happened. — Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody (p 300)

My son will stay up all night basically playing Xbox Live with friends that are in various parts of the world, and yet I can’t sit there in front of the TV and have the same kind of a social interaction around my favorite basketball game or golf match. It’s just because one of these things is delivered over an IP network and the other is not. — Jeff Jarvis (2008)

(Interactive TV, then — but not as we’ve known it.)

*****

Douglas Adams: ‘We are natural villagers. For most of mankind’s history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing. Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.’

Comments