Feats of Clay

On Sunday, June 6, CNN aired an interview with James Fallows in which the writer talked on camera about his

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.”


Feats of Clay