If you read enough, you just have to be wary of Here Comes Everybody and its ilk. By now you’ll have encountered scores of essays on why X Will Change The World, or What X Means, or What X Will Mean In The Future Once People Realize. Especially for books about the Internet. If you’re the sort of person thinking of reading Shirky’s book, you’ve probably also read Larry Lessig (Code), Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks, not to mention essays like “Coase’s Penguin”), Shapiro and Varian (Information Rules), maybe Weinberger (Everything is Miscellaneous), and on and on. You’ve used the Wikipedia. You may well use Linux. You’ve learned about “the wisdom of the crowds” (Surowiecki). You’ve got “the long tail” in there somewhere, namely the idea that places like Amazon and Netflix make more money from obscure titles than they do from popular ones: the popular ones sell more individually, but the obscure ones sell more in the aggregate.
So maybe by now you’re just saturated with Internet prognostication. I know that I am. I’ve had enough of Coase’s Theorem, which says that organizations emerge when it becomes too costly to transact all your business in the marketplace — i.e., when “transaction costs” get too high. People like Benkler and now Shirky have asserted that the Internet is a third way: rather than relying on managerial commands like a firm would, or price signaling like the market, we have projects like Linux and the Wikipedia which use market-like coordination for very large projects, using mostly trivial contributions of labor from each user to construct a beautiful edifice in the aggregate. I’ve read this enough times by now; I’m ready to move on.
Finally, I’ve read a zillion times by now the adage that “freedom of the press used to apply only to those people who could afford a printing press.” The Internet changes that. It makes a lot of things cheaper. It turns one-directional broadcasting (television, say) into many-directional conversation (blogs, LiveJournal, etc.)
These are all fine observations. They’ve been made over and over. What Shirky adds to this cacaphony is an important special case of all of the above: the Internet lets us form groups effortlessly. Now we can work together on projects that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. We can find other people for fun in the real (non-Internet) world. We can find people with remarkably obscure interests matching our own. Previously these would have taken far too much time and effort. And the payoff is far too low for any company to be interested in connecting, say, lovers of ancient Chinese art. What the Internet has given us is a set of tools that allow us to create and find these groups.
This comes with its downsides. For instance, at the same time that it becomes easier for you to find blogs devoted to 18th-century ship-in-a-bottle designs, it becomes easier for me to find backwoods militias. The example Shirky gives here is a web bulletin board devoted to encouraging anorexia among its teen members. (This was the only part of the book that actually horrified me.) In the real world, these sorts of groups succumb to social pressure and go into hiding. The web makes it possible for them to find one another; they are no longer alone.
Shirky only gives brief treatment to these groups, and seems generally in favor of them for the same reason that people favor free speech: it protects the speech we hate as well as the speech we support. I would have liked deeper coverage here. In a lot of senses, the Internet is making us reconsider the foundations of democracy: now that we’re face to face with the consequences of truly free speech, what do we do about it, if anything? Do we still stand by the free-speech absolutism that we clung to when it was more or less hypothetical? Shirky doesn’t really touch on this.
He’s quite often a techno-idealist, which is a stance he assumes professionally. As a technologist, he’s convinced that the spread of cheap communications technologies will allow protesters to connect and topple ruling elites; he uses protests within Belarus as an example. He doesn’t really follow this up with counterexamples: Great Firewall Of China, anyone? More to the point: politics will exist even after text messages amongst flashmobs are a faint memory. I’d have liked this book better had Shirky cowritten it with a political scientist.
At one point Shirky’s love of technology seems to lead him to a non sequitur. He’s just told us about how protest worked in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The protesters, he says, learned to start their rebellion in some tiny way that slips under the government’s radar, and grow slowly. By the time they got big enough to cause the government any harm, it was too late and down fell the wall. Continues Shirky:
The lesson for protesters … was that they should protest in ways that the state was unlikely to interfere with … The lesson for repressive states was the opposite: don’t even let small protests get started … These two lessons set up a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and the protested institutions that continues to this day. As in everything that involves coordinated action, social tools have changed the balance of power in this game.
A “cat-and-mouse game” doesn’t sound to me like a change in “the balance of power” at all. That sounds to me, in fact, like a classic arms race: one side is temporarily victorious until the other side evolves a response.
Had Shirky dug into this a little more, the whole tone of his book would have changed. Had he scaled out his historical perspective, he might not be as optimistic either. I’ve been reading about the revolutionary potential of technology at least since I started using PGP; it was supposed to have been used by freedom fighters in the jungles of Burma. This strain continued through O’Reilly’s publication of its collection of essays on P2P. Within there were essays on, say, FreeNet, which was designed to create a censorship-proof peer-to-peer network. Only the occasional voice was brave enough to ask whether FreeNet would even be permitted within a repressive regime. If Shirky were interested in convincing me that technology might topple existing power structures, he’d go ask how those freedom-fighters are doing.
Shirky’s is a valuable point of view, but it’s a point of view that I’ve heard too many times. Nowadays, it’s more courageous — and ultimately, I think, more helpful to the world — to write a book disagreeing with Shirky (Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, say, or The Cult of the Amateur) than it is to write Here Comes Everybody.