Feats of Clay

IN THE EARLY ’90s, Mr. Shirky made good use of his own cognitive surplus. At the time, he was running an experimental theater group in New York, which staged nonfiction documents (the conversation among air traffic controllers during a plane crash; Ed Meese’s pornography report, etc.). One day, Mr. Shirky’s mom, a research librarian in Columbia, Mo., where Mr. Shirky grew up, told him about something she was learning about in her library class. It was called the Internet. Mr. Shirky was hooked. Instead of returning to Yale, where he had been accepted into the graduate drama school to study lighting design, he studied programming at night at home online with “a bunch of cranky Unix systems administers who worked at banks.”

“I would get home from the theater at 11 p.m. and stay on the Internet until 4,” he said. “I thought either I could call myself an addict and get myself to quit. Or I could try and make it my job.”

Eventually, Mr. Shirky entered New York’s emerging world of interactive design.  “A lot of the people who started the interactive industry in New York came from theater, in part because you have a lot of time on your hands between jobs and, in part, because things you don’t understand don’t scare you,” said Mr. Shirky. “Theater just gets you used to the idea that I have no idea how this is going to go, but let’s try it and see what happens.”

On the side, Mr. Shirky wrote for various publications about the emerging culture of the Internet, plus a series of technical books for hobbyist publisher Ziff Davis (sample title: The Internet by E-mail). He said he has always been a Web optimist; until recently, he added, this was like being a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. The opposition showed up, but it was mostly an exhibition game. “They weren’t really theorists,” said Mr. Shirky. “The entire argument was really between people who loved the Internet and people who didn’t understand it.”

These days, there’s much more competition from the naysayers. “What’s happened in the last five years is that people who use the Internet and understand it quite well on some axis, whether engineering or social, are nevertheless operating as pessimists,” said Mr. Shirky.

In particular, Mr. Shirky has recently found himself mulling over the computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, in which Mr. Lanier criticizes the Internet’s propensity for groupthink, shoddy group collaboration and “digital Maoism”; and technology journalist Nicholas Carr’s just-published book The Shallows, which argues that as the Internet replaces print, the new medium is rewiring our brains and wrecking our ability to focus deeply.

“What’s interesting to me is that I’m reading those books and nodding my head right up until the moment comes for the authors to say, ‘Here’s what we ought to do about it,'” said Mr. Shirky. “The stuff that Nick says is wrong with the Internet is wrong with the Internet. The distraction is, I think, the biggest problem. But what’s interesting about The Shallows is that it doesn’t actually propose what to do about it.” (“My interest is description, not prescription,” retorted Mr. Carr in an email.)

Part of the problem, said Mr. Shirky, is that Mr. Carr is comparing the 500-year-old print culture with an Internet culture that has existed for less than a quarter-century. “The old system has all these robust, well-worked-out institutions,” said Mr. Shirky. “The new system, we just got here. He assumes that the new system won’t improve.”

Mr. Shirky thinks it will. The key, he believes, is to diagnose problems as they arise, and then use trial-and-error experimentation to build up a new set of institutions and cultural habits that will address the Internet’s deficiencies while maximizing its freedoms. Even the rise of the insightful Internet pessimists, in Mr. Shirky’s eyes, is a good thing, because they are increasingly skilled at calling attention to the most pressing problems with digital culture. “Funnily enough, it may be the pessimists who help us make more progress on the big issues, like anonymity and distractedness,” he said. “In part because they have rhetorical clarity.”

In the end, however, it will be the pragmatic optimists, Mr. Shirky believes, who will end up fixing those problems, most likely through a gradual and prolonged accumulation of small breakthroughs, solutions and optimizations.

 

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