On Sunday, June 6, CNN aired an interview with James Fallows in which the writer talked on camera about his recent story in The Atlantic, which looked at Google’s impact on the news business. Typically, such stories are full of gloom, but this one was hopeful. Having contributed to the many woes of the newspaper business, Mr. Fallows wrote, the engineers at Google were now working on ways to create a new business model to preserve serious journalism in the digital age, advocating “continuous experimentation-learning what does work by seeing all the things that don’t.”
During the discussion with CNN’s Howard Kurtz, Mr. Fallows mentioned the work of a media theorist whose maxim “nothing will work, but everything might” provided the theoretical framework embraced by the Google empiricists. Traditionally, there has been a place in American public life where you go to find visionaries happy to tout the social benefits of technological advances-namely, Silicon Valley. But Mr. Fallows was referring to the work of an N.Y.U. professor named Clay Shirky.
A few days earlier, Mr. Shirky sat in his office at N.Y.U.’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, on the fourth floor of a building overlooking Broadway, and acknowledged that people don’t typically think of New York as a fountain of gushing techno-optimism-but that, perhaps, they should. “I’ve always been in communities of cultures that make things-artists, theater people, Internet entrepreneurs,” said Mr. Shirky, a boyish, bald 46. “No matter now jaded or cynical someone’s external demeanor, if you’re in a group of people who make things, you’re in a group of optimists.”
‘You sit in his class for an hour, and you feel like a superstar, like you can understand things in a much clearer way.’—Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley
In the hallway outside Mr. Shirky’s office, a group of students were assembling a tent. A futuristic light projection that looked like a centipede danced across the floor. On the wall, there was a poster for a student project involving a “sound-walk” across the Brooklyn Bridge that would include video from the perspective of the student’s feet.
“During the ’90s, I spent countless hours trekking down to Wall Street because the bankers wanted to have a meeting about how do we make New York more like Silicon Valley,” Mr. Shirky said. “My answer was always the same. You don’t. What you could do is make New York a good place to start a business. The people who move here-they are some driven motherfuckers. They will figure it out.”
Some 25 years after first moving to New York himself with an undergraduate degree in fine arts from Yale University and the hope of making it in theater design, Mr. Shirky has emerged, somewhat improbably, as the leading voice of New York’s new school of technological pragmatism.
On June 10, Penguin Press will publish his latest book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. It’s a wide-ranging essay about how the emerging forms of the Internet will ultimately provide a net benefit for society, in part by helping to free us all from our decades-long habit of over-medicating with television.
People have described Mr. Shirky as a cyber-utopian, but he rejects the term. He said that his greatest philosophical influence is the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. “It’s not that the technology is natively good,” Mr. Shirky said. “But rather that it gives society the raw material we need to do new, interesting things.”
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.
SINCE THE FALL of 2001, Mr. Shirky has worked as an associate teacher at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), part of the school’s Tisch School of the Arts. Founded in the 1970s, the program has grown into a lab of digital experimentation where teams of students endlessly tinker with new combinations of art and programming and social interactivity.
Over the years, Mr. Shirky has developed a seminar called Social Facts, whose syllabus progresses from sociological dilemmas facing groups irrespective of technology (tragedy of the commons, prisoner’s dilemma, etc.) to the specific challenges facing groups online. By the end of the class, students are asked to think like designers-if you wanted to change an existing space, or create a new space, what would you do? Mr. Shirky also teaches a production class in which students develop technology projects in partnership with UNICEF. “If you could get into his class, you took it,” said Dennis Crowley, the co-founder of Foursquare, who graduated from ITP in 2004. “You sit in his class for an hour, and you feel like a superstar, like you can understand things in a much clearer way.”
Mr. Crowley described Mr. Shirky as the program’s in-house theorist-the guy who students turn to in order to get a broader perspective on what they’re doing and why it’s important. In the fall of 2003, Mr. Shirky served as the informal adviser for an independent study taken by Mr. Crowley and one of his fellow students, Alex Rainert, who two years later sold their social networking software company, Dodgeball, to Google. In a program like ITP, said Mr. Crowley, you spend a lot of time engrossed in the minutiae of projects-learning how to write code, how to solder. “He’s very good at widening the scope,” said Mr. Crowley.
“I don’t think we’re throwing off the old print culture, and now we’ll live in some kind of pure, sacred fusing with human nature as it always really was,” said Mr. Shirky. “The source of my optimism is really that young people will find things to do with the medium that will create the kinds of institutions we need around something like the Web, rather than around something like print.”
In March of 2009, Mr. Shirky wrote an essay on his personal blog about the root causes that are currently ravaging the newspaper business; it quickly became a must-read among journalists throughout the city. Unlike most pro-Internet media theorists, Mr. Shirky can talk extensively about the problems facing professional journalism without sounding like a scold. It’s also possible to listen to him without that nagging suspicion that his real motivation is to selfishly milk old-media companies with a bunch of vapid ideas that will only make things worse.
On May 26, Mr. Shirky spoke at a private event for staff members of The New York Times, hosted by the paper’s in-house R&D chief, Michael Zimbalist.
David Carr, the paper’s media columnist, was impressed with Mr. Shirky’s narrative synthesis. “He storytells in ways that people who are listening to him don’t notice that the story ends with their obsolescence,” said Mr. Carr. “They’re sort of lulled to sleep by the music of his voice and his presentation. He just sort of gently mentions at the end the part about, ‘And then you’ll all be turned to red mist.’”
Mr. Carr said that these days if he had a half-hour or so to listen to anybody talk about the media business, Mr. Shirky would be at the top of the list. “He’s an academic in the clinical sense,” said Mr. Carr. “You just can’t get to the end of what he knows or what he’s interested in.”
For the past decade, Mr. Shirky has been in a program for artists and techies, not for journalists. That may soon change. In the fall, he will delve into the journalism-business-model quandary as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “The thing that I’m interested in is the ways in which journalism can function more like an ecosystem,” said Mr. Shirky. “Which is to say that instead of having a whole bunch of institutions that are doing the full end-to-end production of news, that we end up with a bunch of shared resources, the way ProPublica works.”
And when he returns to New York in 2011, for the first time, Mr. Shirky will begin working with N.Y.U.’s journalism department (the details of the arrangement have yet to be finalized).
“My interest in the last couple of years has turned especially to the production of nonfiction media, whether it’s long-form journalism or investigative journalism,” Mr. Shirky said. “It’s no fun to just be the guy diagnosing the problem.”
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