Tom Slee is a fabulous author; his [book: No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart] is one of my favorite books of the last five years. He’s made a second career (which maybe he’ll turn into a book? I’d buy it) out of dispensing with a lot of new-economy nonsense; his latest salvo is against Clay Shirky. Shirky is a fine, provocative writer, but his love of technology leads him to some silly techno-idealism. Slee looks at the abstract structure of a Shirkian argument; it turns out that a lot of “Web 2.0”-inspired authors follow the same structure.
Slee’s series of responses to Chris Anderson’s “long tail” idea are in the same vein. I’d use the word “contrarian” for these, if I didn’t think that word had been sullied by Christopher Hitchens, and if I didn’t think it implied opposition for the sake of opposition. In a lot of the Web 2.0 nonsense, it would be hugely instructive for the Web 2.0 folks to be forced to argue the contrary of whatever it is that they’re claiming at that moment. Argue that “social media” won’t actually have any world-changing effect on anything. Argue that blockbusters will have just as much of a place in the 21st-century economy as they did in the 20th-century economy, and that those folks living on the long tail will have just as much trouble making a living as they ever have. Argue that the structure of a lot of economic processes is a classical arms race: my side adopts some new technology and temporarily moves ahead, but eventually your side does the same thing; the net effect is a wash. (You could have predicted, similarly, that even if sabermetrics was a valuable technology and initially helped teams with small budgets, that its value to those teams would eventually disappear as the Yankees caught wind of it.) Argue that while the Internet makes distributed teams more feasible and reduces transaction costs, and so might temporarily help small businesses, it will eventually be adopted by large companies as well. And so forth. I’d love to see the Shirkys of the world forced to write books arguing these positions with all the passion that they apply to their chosen viewpoints.
The trouble may be that the incentives are all wrong. It is much sexier to argue that some new flavor of the month will change the world than to argue that the world of the future will look a lot like the world of today. When everyone around you is swept up in talk of Twitter and FourSquare, you’re likely to do better if you assert with everyone else that these are the waves of the future. You will be invited to conferences; you will be asked to write books. Likewise, newspapers and policymakers will do a lot better if they talk about something sexy like terrorism than if they pledge to end 600,000 annual heart-disease deaths. The old and stable and known is boring, though it may well be true.
Perhaps Slee and I should team up and write a book about all this nonsense. Or maybe we should both sell out and write a book about how FourSquare Will Change Everything. It will sell reasonably well and earn us both a decent middle-class income, which we can then convert into a second book entitled [book: Ha Ha We Were Just Kidding, Or: Your Latest Technology Idea Sucks].