Clay Shirky on the Internet as a Distractor and Disruptor

Are our insatiable media appetites good for us? "I'd adopt a tempered pessimism," Shirky says.

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Clay Shirky, right; Don Tapscott, left/frog

Clay Shirky, a widely published authority on the Internet's effects on society, and Don Tapscott, an author and adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, are two of today's most sought-after thinkers on our networked world. Recently, they took the time to pose tough, timely questions to each other on how social media, intellectual property laws, and generational divides are affecting politics, business, and culture.

What follows is their written exchange taking place over the course of two months in late summer and early fall. Their interview will be published next week in design mind, a print magazine from the design and innovation firm, frog. Here is Part II of their conversation. Part I ran on Friday.

Don Tapscott: In the Arab Spring "the revolution" was tweeted. But because they are leaderless in the traditional sense, wiki revolutions seem to create a vacuum, in many instances, filled with unsavory forces. How can the media help activists actually form progressive governments?

Clay Shirky: This is a long-term issue. We've known for some time now that the Internet is better at "No" than "Go," in the words of Micah Sifry. Five years ago, I was giving talks with slides of Amish barn raisings, saying "We need to figure out a way to use the network for this sort of constructive work," but I've since come to conclude that the Internet is better at No than Go, which is to say it is a medium that favors extensive ties over intensive ones.

The thing that most changed my mind was a book by Pierre Rossonvallon called Counter-Democracy, which unearths the aspects of democratic participation that are about citizen suspicion of the state. Rossonvallon says that the ways that we stop the state from doing certain things are not only an underappreciated part of democracy, but logically and historically exist prior to establishing mechanisms like voting and parliaments.

The grain of the Internet seems to favor coalitions built on the intersection of people's goals, not the union of those goals. This makes it good for movements and bad for political parties, at least as historically conceived. So I'd say we should expect to see a lot more knocking down of existing structures, while the work of building new ones based on deep integration remains as hard as ever.

Given the number of really bad existing structures, this is still a huge net win for humanity. Until last year, for instance, there was not one Arab democracy, and now there are three (three and counting, is my bet).

This strikes me as a huge improvement--the people who are shocked or disappointed that the outcome of the Arab Spring was not an instant move to Norway in the Maghreb should take a look at the early history of long-lived democracies. The United States got it so wrong at the beginning, we had to throw out the entire system and start from scratch. That process took 15 years, and even then we had to have a civil war.

So we should take it for granted that the Internet is best as a tool for wide coalitions, which tend, by default, to be oppositional, while still looking for ways to use it as an input to the propositional work of saying what should replace the current system.

Right now, the best the Net can do for that latter category is make it easier for people to communicate about the kind of government they want and, when they are ready, to engage in the serious trade-offs needed to make a real government. The Net doesn't do much to make people ready for those trade-offs, however.

Tapscott: How can we inform ourselves as individuals and as a society if the traditional model of the newspaper is collapsing?

Shirky: The single most important thing for an individual to do is to recognize that society is not made up of individuals but of groups, some tight and some loose. Democracies are not markets, divided into atomized and rational actors. Democracies are coalitional, and the big thing we lose with the continuing shrinking of the importance of newspapers is having a place where news junkies and sports fans both occasionally see the same front page.

If we leave it to individuals to inform themselves, the news junkies will simply pull away from the rest of society. We'll have a tiny core of hyper-informed individuals and a large mass of people who don't know and don't care about politics, as we've always had, but we'll lose the group in the middle that followed the news a bit.

As news sources become more variable and news consumption becomes more voluntary, the single best thing individuals can do is to share what they care about. We still sometimes fall into the old thought that people are receptacles of political ideas, sent there by politicians and parties working through the media.

The promise of democracy, though, is that people can also be sources of political ideas, either by expressing their own or amplifying others' ideas. So the best thing for democracy right now would be for people to share more expressly political speech, speech they approve of and speech they revile, on their social networks.

We have an opportunity to break out of the "informed citizen" model and get to something where political ideas are really in circulation among voters, and there are some hints that this is happening. In the United States, 2012 is an election year, so the change may be temporary, but a culture where individuals circulate political ideas among themselves, whatever the original source, would be a terrific upgrade.

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 Frog Design is a global innovation firm. They work with companies to design and engineer meaningful products and services.

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