One of the digital age’s great thinkers talks to PW about his new book, Cognitive Surplus, web “values,” and the changing world of publishing.
By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, 6/21/2010
Fall the talk of disruptive technology in the publishing and media worlds, it isn’t easy to be an optimist these days. But it’s hard not to notice that Clay Shirky, one of the digital age’s most original, engaged thinkers, is remarkably sanguine about the prospects of new media—especially for a man so immersed in discussing its problems.
In 2008 Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, was one of the first to predict the power of social media, lauding the power and potential of a collaborative digital space, from crowdsourcing to the kind of sharing now popularized by Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. This month, he’s back with a new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin Press), an equally prescient book that extols the possibilities of the Internet age and outlines the social obligations that come with it, beyond tweeting, or posting pithy status updates.
“How we put our collective talents to work is a social issue,” Shirky writes, “not solely a personal one.”
A teacher in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University—a bustling hive of art projects, digital media, and collaborating students—and soon to be teaching in the NYU journalism school as well, Shirky is a sought-after writer and speaker on all things digital and a popular consultant, particularly when it comes to media. “My interest in the last couple of years has turned especially to the production of nonfiction media,” Shirky told the New York Observer in a recent profile. “Whether it’s long-form journalism or investigative journalism,” he said, “it’s no fun to just be the guy diagnosing the problem.”
So prominent is Shirky in the zeitgeist of the digital world, he even has his own principle. In April of this year, Wired’s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation.
“It reminded me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence, at which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again,” Kelly explained. “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”
For the publishing world, the Shirky Principle certainly warrants examination. But while he resists being labeled a utopian, Shirky is unquestionably optimistic about the power of the Internet to make things better. That’s because the Internet, he says, will liberate us from a decades-long addiction to sitcoms and other forms of passive entertainment. More and more people are now “donating” their free time to create and engage with each other on an unprecedented scale—resulting in the “cognitive surplus” about which he writes. Efforts include the fun and frivolous—such as the Internet phenomenon LOLcats—as well as life-saving innovations, such as UShahidi.com, a Web solution that allows Kenyans to report crime.
To what end we apply the Internet medium is now Shirky’s main preoccupation—as it is for publishing—especially now that our leisure time is, as Shirky puts it, a “global resource.” With just 1% of the hours we spend watching TV, he notes, people created Wikipedia, a bank of collective and constantly updated and corrected knowledge.
When you put it like that, maybe there is reason for optimism. PW caught up with Shirky at his NYU office to talk about his new book, the state of the digital debate, and of course, the changing world of publishing.
PW: Since your last book, Here Comes Everybody, the discourse around the Web—its uses and abuses—seems to have mushroomed.
Clay Shirky: I’ve spent almost 20 years saying, “This is going to be a really big deal,” and almost all of the debate for the last 20 years has been a bunch of people lining up to say, “No it’s not.” Paul Krugman once said the effect of the Internet was going to be no bigger than that of the fax machine. The debate was once between people who thought the Internet was going to be a really big deal and people who thought it wasn’t, and for me that was a bit like being on the Harlem Globetrotters. You had opposition, but not really. The other side was showing up, but they weren’t even playing the same game. But over the last five years—and in 2010 with a vengeance—the debate is between people who understand the Internet in fairly deep ways, some who say this is going to be good for society and some who say it’s going to be bad. On the other side from me now are Andrew Keen, Nick Carr, Jaron Lanier, Chris Hughes. When I wrote my first book, Here Comes Everybody, publishers basically said, “If it says the word Internet in it, we’re not publishing it; no one buys those books.” So, I had the luck of having the only book on the shelves when the Obama campaign took off, and all of a sudden people changed their minds about how important social media is. This book, Cognitive Surplus, comes out at a time when there are informed participants on all sides. And the conversation is on.
PW: What ideas are completely unique to Cognitive Surplus?
CS: The surprise to me in writing the book was this business of the difference between communal and civic values. I write about LOLcats, fan fiction, PatientsLikeMe.com [a Web site for patients to share treatment information], and Nisha Susan [organizer of an on-the-ground and online campaign protesting a right-wing political group’s repressive treatment of women in Mangalore, India]. All of these are effusions of people pooling their spare time and talent, but some of them are good for the participants, and some are good for society as a whole. What’s critical about Nisha Susan, or PatientsLikeMe, for example, is that there is real opposition to them doing what they’re doing—it takes guts to be Nisha Susan, and if we don’t create a culture that celebrates the creation of that kind of civic value, all we get is communal value, like groups of people that band together for self-amusement: “you like Harry Potter, I like Harry Potter.” When people have the guts to act on their convictions in ways that are tough for them, like the people on PatientsLikeMe, saying, “I’m manic-depressive. These are the drugs I’m taking; these are the ones that are working,” they defy the current medical culture that says, “Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.” This is the conversation I’m most interested in having. That’s the thing I care most about. If we don’t celebrate civic value, we underuse the medium.
PW: Many interviews you’ve done seem to have a fairly predictable pattern: interviewers ask you to defend the Internet against its putative dangers. How does it feel to be that voice in the conversation?
CS: People invite me to be one side of a synthetic argument on the assumption that I’m casually optimistic about all this stuff. So I’m expected to answer for the worst excesses of the most utopian Internet thinkers because if I think it’s at all good, I must think everything is immediately good all the time. Not even optimists have that kind of optimism. It is possible to think that the Internet will be a net positive for society while admitting that there are significant downsides—after all, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses. I’m optimistic mainly because I teach in a graduate program and spend more time with 25-year-olds than 55-year-olds. My environment is set by smart young people using this medium in ways that make me glad every day. But even the optimists among us have to get good at being anti-utopian.
The casual, utopian view of the Internet has the obvious disadvantage of being wrong and the more pernicious disadvantage of making it seem like someone else is going to take care of things. I gave a guest talk recently to a Harvard University journalism and public policy class, and someone said, “Newspapers will go away, but the ecosystem will take care of things.” Ecosystems don’t do things; people do things! To be in a room with people who care about what happens to the press and to offload to the ecosystem the idea that things will somehow be OK is to opt out of our cultural obligation to figure out what the “invisible college” model is right now, that is, to sign ourselves up for a more rigorous view of what the medium is capable of, beyond LOLcats. I like LOLcats as much as the next guy but they’re in no danger of going away. No one will ever wonder, is there anything amusing for me on the Internet? That is a solved problem. What we should really care about are [the Internet’s] cultural uses. That’s the part of the debate I’m trying to surface.
PW: But there are those who find these cultural uses inherently flawed. Jaron Lanier, for example, writes that “amateurs are treating the fruits of their intellect as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.”
CS: I have two responses to that. First, we don’t think of bar owners as illicitly profiting off our conviviality. They provide a service by jacking up the price of liquor enough to afford us chairs, where we can sit with our friend to have a nice conversation. [Lanier’s] mental model washes away all participatory logic and says what people who produce content are doing is piecework, and if they’re not being paid by the piece it’s somehow unfair.
The other argument is the economic argument, “the lump of labor fallacy.” Every time something comes along and takes away something that was previously a job and remands it instead to the population, there are people wringing their hands. In Here Comes Everybody I told the story of the Abbot of Sponheim who in 1492 wrote a book saying that if this printing press thing is allowed to expand, what will the scribes do for a living? But it was more important that Europe be literate than for scribes to have a job. In a world where a book had to be a physical object, charging money was a way to cause more copies to come into circulation. In the digital world, charging money for something is a way to produce fewer copies. There is no way to preserve the status quo and not abandon that value.
PW: I recently attended a London Review of Books talk called “The Author in the Age of Internet,” and one of the writers there said about the Internet, “It’s not as if something vast and new is occurring. Jonathan Swift blogged; he would do it to rid himself of an indignation.” What do you make of the tendency to minimize the scale of change now hitting literature and publishing?
CS: One of the big problems with the discourse right now is that people are invited to think that nothing has changed. The deeper problem is this invidious habit, from—alas—Plato, which is to make a distinction between the difference in degree and the difference in kind, as if to say, “Oh, if anything like this happened before, then this is just more of the same.” To say that Jonathan Swift wrote for himself, or wrote letters to his friends, and therefore “blogs are not new,” is to say there is no value in being instantaneous, global, two-way, permanent, searchable, the list goes on.
Have you read Tiger Beatdown? It’s my new favorite blog. Back in 1991, Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth that the great tragedy of women’s magazines isn’t that they don’t provide a free place for women to have a female conversation; the great tragedy is that they could have, but advertising took it away. Blogs give it back. Anyone who tells you that Jonathan Swift did this is ignoring at least half of the human race that never had presumptive access to publishing in an unfiltered way. What Sady Doyle is doing with Tiger Beatdown would be inconceivable in a professional publishing context, and while I hope she does get recognized and gets picked up to do a book, she doesn’t need a book to have a voice. In literature there’s never been the kind of place for women’s voices that there is now. It’s spectacular.
PW: I’ve often thought that when it comes to the Web and certain kinds of innovation, publishing is the anti-porn—given that pornographers, in order to reach consumers, innovated so many things we take for granted on the Web, from streaming video to credit card verification.
CS: Just today I was talking to a bunch of newspaper people about the future of the newspaper business—not the newspaper ecosystem—and I wanted to talk about sharing, because with new models like Wikileaks, or ProPublica, you have a kind of pooling of resources. But all everyone wanted to know was how existing newspapers will make money. If I’d been told this was the question I’d been invited to talk about, I wouldn’t have come, because I don’t know and I don’t care. I care about news in a democratic society. But if a newspaper has to do something different next week—it’s not my problem. The greatest thing going for the publishing industry is that they’ve seen what has happened to the music industry; they’ve seen it happen to the magazine people. They’re watching it happen to the movie people right now; they’ve seen it happen to the software people. They’ve seen Blockbusters close, they’ve seen Virgin Records close. They’ve seen GameStops close. And they’re saying—not us, because we have these [taps book].
PW: Where does that come from—complacency, anxiety?
CS: Some of it is anxiety. Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution. But the interesting clash for me isn’t between Apple, Amazon, and Macmillan. The interesting clash to me is between you and say, Sonny Mehta. I can only name two publishers—Sonny Mehta and my own. You’re both in the same industry, but from his point of view if he can just hold it together 10 more years, he’s fine. He can retire. But you know that if you stay in the book industry 30 more years, there’s no way that things will be anything like today. Sonny Mehta’s incentive is to postpone—even if it makes things worse—the moment of shock to right after he retires. But you don’t have that option. I’m interested in young writers and editors entering a system that is plainly structured around the vestiges of a world fast draining away. In Ken Auletta’s recent article in the New Yorker he suggested that eventually digital could be up to—oh! 50 percent! That’s right before it becomes 51, 52 and so on. At what point do we think it stops?
PW: At what point will fear and anxiety no longer be appropriate responses?
CS: The point at which you think you can no longer get away with your pension under the current system. That’s the point. I saw it happen in the music business. To be in my industry, you have to be in San Francisco, New York, and London at least once a year just to absorb the air. But all of a sudden in 2003-4, L.A. start-up culture got really interesting. It was the moment where 30-year-olds said, “Wait a minute. The people steering the ship only want to get it this much further and then they’re willing to see it sink. I’m bailing out now.” All these little companies said, “If we accept that the Internet is going to hang around for a little while, would we do the music business differently?”
PW: When do you think a similar realization will come to book publishing?
CS: I think someone will make the imprint that bypasses the traditional distribution networks. Right now the big bottleneck is the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. That’s the seawall holding back the flood in publishing. Someone’s going to say, “I can do a business book or a vampire book or a romance novel, whatever, that might sell 60% of the units it would sell if I had full distribution and a multimillion dollar marketing campaign—but I can do it for 1% percent of the cost.” It has already happened a couple of times with specialty books. The moment of tip happens when enough things get joined up to create their own feedback loop, and the feedback loop in publishing changes when someone at Barnes & Noble says: “We can’t afford not to stock this particular book or series from an independent publisher.” It could be on Lulu, or iUniverse, whatever. And, I feel pretty confident saying it’s going to happen in the next five years.