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.

Tapscott: There may be a multi-trillion hour-per-year cognitive surplus of free time, but isn't the persistent media diet of most people (television and other low-minded activities) cause for pessimism?

Shirky: Surveying the human condition, there's always cause for pessimism, but in this case, I'd adopt a tempered pessimism. Wired young people watch less TV than previous generations did, and when they do watch it, they watch it while they are also connected to friends. The high-water mark of isolated, passive media consumption is largely in the past; younger people do not seem to be adopting the extremes of the disconnected consumption of the 20th century.

This is, so far, a change limited to a particular cohort, but I also remember being told, in the early 1990s, that I was a ridiculous geek, and it wasn't like everyone was going to (take your pick) own a computer, have an email address, use the Web, read on a screen, etc., etc.

The other case for tempered pessimism is that the examples we have of group creation don't rely on wholesale change--whether you are looking at examples of amateur collaboration (digitizing old ship logs, figuring out how proteins fold), sites of cultural production (Pinterest, YouTube), collaborative consumption (Freecycle, CouchSurfing) or new kinds of conversational value (Quora, Reddit). Each of these initiatives requires only a small percentage of the population to donate a small percentage of time to making or sharing to have an outsized effect.

This is, for me, the biggest driving force in our use of the cognitive surplus: considering that by the end of the 20th century, the total time spent in media consumption, with no accompanying production or sharing and even precious little annotation or discussion, is a situation so different from ours in the early 21st century. This shows that even small changes in behavior can have outsized outcomes for the culture.

Whatever the new balance between passive and active consumption becomes, the early changes are quite dramatic, because these projects of joint creation are so unusual.

Tapscott: The Canadian government is about to pass more restrictive copyright legislation to "protect" intellectual property from thieving children and other pirates. If not pursuing SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and its myriad variants, what should governments do?

Shirky: The first thing, a precursor to whatever the new bargain is, is to abandon copyright maximalism, the doctrine that says that the only rationale for copyright (or intellectual property, generally) is to give businesses the right to rent-extraction over the population.

Copyright law, as rationalized since the Statute of Anne in Great Britain in 1710, has always had significant provisions for the value to the public for creative work, and ideas like limited duration, required library deposit, and the public domain were part of the bargain from the beginning.

That balance has been all but destroyed--in the United States, copyright has effectively become infinite, because every time works from the early 1920s start coming to the end of their term, Hollywood gets Congress to extend the term.

So I am somewhat impatient with this idea that "something must be done" in the short term, as if there was a technical or legal fix to a system with a broken model. What we need is a government willing to say "Copyright is and has always been a bargain between creating a market for creative work to create incentives, and creating a cultural commons to create value for the citizens," and then start reasoning about how such a bargain will be worked out in a world with an Internet.

There are lots of technical ideas that might work, from ASCAP-style licensing to distributed patronage in return for early access, but none of them can even be discussed as long as Hollywood says, "The law must preserve our 20th-century victory over the public's rights under copyright law!"

Tapscott: Are we in a new tech bubble? What's different today from the dot com-era tech marketplace?

Shirky: Back to front, the biggest difference between the 1996-2000 marketplace and now is that the current market isn't an undifferentiated mass of excitement and confusion, and the appearance of the word "Internet" doesn't cause people to lose their minds.

The market in the late 1990s made very little distinction between platform companies like Netscape, access companies like AOL, commerce companies like Amazon, and media companies like Tripod. The result wasn't just that valuations were unsustainably high, but that companies that were nothing but hype, like TheGlobe [an early online community], were favorably compared to ones that actually created real value in the long term, like eBay.

In those days, overvaluing good companies was a problem, but wildly overvaluing worthless ones was a catastrophe.

By that metric, we are not in a bubble. There is some debate about the net present value of Groupon or Facebook, but no one doubts that those are businesses with real assets and revenues, and no one thinks of Groupon as being in the same business as Zipcar, or the Huffington Post, or Twitter.

I think the more sober-minded segmenting of the market, and the more public willingness to air skepticism about any given firm and then to have such skepticism be heard, will keep any market corrections pretty minimal, at least by 2000 bubble standards. As always, some firms will turn out to be overvalued and others undervalued, but we're not facing a general grouping of all businesses that use the Internet into one "sector" anymore, largely because all businesses now use the Internet.

A version of this article is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of design mind magazine, published by frog in partnership with TED. Don Tapscott is the author of 14 books and an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He has just launched the Don Tapscott App for the iPad. Watch his TEDTalk here. Follow him on Twitter: @dtapscott. Clay Shirky writes and speaks extensively about the Internet's effects on society and is the author of two books on the subject. He teaches at New York University. Watch his most recent TEDTalk here. Follow him on Twitter: @cshirky.