Interview with Clay Shirky, Part I

"There's always a new Luddism whenever there's change."

Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University and is the author, most recently, of Here Comes Everybody, about how new means of communication are changing the social environment. CJR’s Russ Juskalian recently spoke with Shirky about knowledge, the Internet, and why we shouldn’t worry about information overload. The second part of the interview can be found here.

Russ Juskalian: Could you do an overview of how literary reading gave way to television, and, then, to the Web? I read your response to Nick Carr’s Atlantic article—I was wondering if you could talk about that for a little bit.

CS: One of the things that I’ve noticed with criticisms of the Internet is that very often they’re displaced criticisms of television. That there are a lot of people, Nick Carr especially is a recent addition to the canon, wringing their hands over the end of literary reading. And they’re laying that at the foot of the Internet. It seems to me, in fact, from the historical record, that the idea of literary reading as a sort of broad and normal activity was done in by television, and it was done in forty years ago.

The funny thing, though, is when television came along, it became, to a degree literally unprecedented in the history of media—not just the dominant media compared to other media, but really the dominant activity in life outside of sleeping and working—that a curious bargain was struck where television still genuflected to the idea of literary reading. The notion was that there was somehow this sacred cathedral of the great books and so forth. It was just that no one actually participated in it, and so it was sort of this kind of Potemkin village. What the Internet has actually done is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people.

Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody. And I think as people are surveying the Internet, a lot of what they’re doing is just shooting the messenger.

RJ: So what do you think this has done to patterns of media consumption in recent years?

CS: Patterns of media consumption in recent years are very complicated to study, in part because we have a hard time right now separating fads from cohort effects from real deep structural shifts. So, when Friendster came along in 2002 and became this incredibly popular, fast-growing application, and everybody said “Oh, you know, Friendster’s invented this new category of the social networking service”—and then it went away. By, you know, 2005, Friendster was basically a dead letter. MySpace had become the new application, right. Everybody then says “Oh, it’s MySpace….” Then Facebook comes along and has the incredible success it’s had. And so we have a very difficult time looking at the media landscape today, sorting the deep effects from the shallow ones. Many of the effects that people are thinking about today are, in fact, shallow effects.

But, the deep effects seem to me to be that when people are given media that isn’t interactive, they invent their own interactions around it. You will see this around television shows. Lost and Heroes are probably the most famous in this mode where the enormity of fan activity around the show is vastly larger than it was around equivalently popular shows in the ’90s, much less ‘87, as its era. And so, where the creators of media aren’t adding interactive effects, users are stepping in on their own, right?

The growth and spread of fan fiction is a way for the fans to participate directly in, say, the Harry Potter universe or the Tolkien universe. You see something that wasn’t possible even ten years ago, both because the technologies are in place but also, much more importantly, because now these tools reach most of society. Right, it’s not just when a tool comes along that change happens. It’s really when it becomes ubiquitous and even boring. And what’s happened now is that the Web has gotten boring for a whole generation of teens and twenty-somethings. And so, because they can take it for granted, they’re using this platform to add interactivity around regular media consumption.

RJ: Do you see a shift going on in terms of attention or attention span? Are people bouncing around between these things—you know, they watch the show and they want to blog about it and then they want to be part of the community? Or are all the complaints about attention span just kind of wild?

CS: You know, there’ve always been these complaints about attention span. And, again, this is one of the things that’s—people just worry about attention span and they change the media they worry about. I mean, when I was growing up, the attention span worry was, you know, entirely targeted at television shows and so forth. And, one of the things I think Steven Johnson does quite beautifully in Everything Bad is Good for You is to note the ways in which the unit of a television show moved from being inside the show—you have Fantasy Island or Love Boat, which has sort of two or three subplots—to being units of comprehension that passed across several shows. So, you get the Sopranos, where the entire thing has a narrative arc that spans years. So, it’s harder, I think, to make the case that attention span is unilaterally shortening.

What is quite obviously happening is that the number of things that are available for short attention are increasing. But, so is the ability to consume complicated, long-form information. I think the fact that Nate Silver’s site in the recent election—Nate Silver’s—became a breakout hit was a kind of a testimony to a hunger in people for taking in information in long, large, complex ways. It was just a crazy amount of information that Silver followed. One of the things the Internet does by removing the old constraints—it’s really the first thing ever invented worthy of the name media, because it’s the first general purpose media we’ve ever had—is it almost never moves us from a world of one effect to another effect. It almost always increases the range of all effects. So, I think that, you know, it’s certainly been a boon for, you know, short-form blogging and Twittering and so forth. But, it also means that someone who’s especially interested in a certain kind of content can actually get much, much more access to it than possible.

So, I think it has increased long attention span where that is what people find rewarding and increased short attention span where that’s been found rewarding. My seven-year-old, who is absolutely obsessed with every aspect of the New York transportation system, has found on Wikipedia more information than his parents who have lived in New York for twenty and forty years, respectively, could possibly have provided him. And, he’s just happy to be on Wikipedia, pulling this information down and adding it up. And there’s so much reward there for long attention spans and I think we haven’t noticed it in part because the narrative that we tell ourselves about media is ‘the past is always better than the future,’ that we kind of missed the fact that, actually, the range of effects is opening up.

RJ: Would you say that the main effect of the Internet or the Web on media consumption is that it has facilitated a wider range of accessibility from the really short-term to the really long-term to the really in-depth—

CS: Yeah, absolutely. Everyone who’s dealt with publishing constraints—who has the experience of knowing “Oh, I’m sorry, this is a 10,000 word article we’ve commissioned, or a 5,000 word article, and we’re going to get rid of all this extra writing stuff”—has seen places where long-form writing, because there’s no bottom of the page, where long-form writing can thrive. One of the most important essays ever published in the technology world was The Cathedrals and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond’s long-form musing on open-source software and how it works. That thing comes in, at I think, 20,000 words. If that had been sent through The New York Times Magazine’s editorial process, it would have been slashed to ribbons. And yet it changed the world.

But we don’t tell stories about long-form writing that couldn’t have thrived in the existing constraints of print media because print media squishes things down to be too short because it doesn’t match this narrative that was first set up for TV, which is “Oh, all this new media is shortening people’s attention spans and distracting them.” To which you can, you know, you can only reply, “Yes, that’s true,” except where it’s not true. There’s no inkling of that of that explanation in the success of, say, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. And the length of that essay was, in part, of one of things that made it successful.

RJ: Why do so many people seem focused on this idea that the Web has cut our attention spans down? What’s responsible for that phenomenon?

CS: So many people think that the Web is shortening attention spans?

RJ: Yeah.

CS: You know, “Life was better when I was younger” is always an acceptable narrative. Right? And so for anybody who was brought up genuflecting to the literary culture and the virtues of reading Tolstoy—and essentially Tolstoy is a trope in these things, War and Peace is the longest novel in the sort of Euro-centric canon—you could always make the argument that the present is worse than the past by simply pointing to the virtues of the past. And so, what the Web does is that it does what all amateur increases do, which is it decreases the average quality of what’s available. It is exactly, precisely, the complaint made about the printing press. So, the only thing surprising about the Web, in a way, is that it’s been a long time since we’ve had a medium that increased the amount of production of written material this dramatically.

But people made the same complaint about comic books, they made the same complaint about paperbacks, and they made the same complaint about the vulgarity of the printing press. Whenever you let more people in, things get vulgar by definition. And people who benefited under the old system or who dislike or distrust vulgarity as a process always have room to complain. But, the interesting thing is, when you say so many people believe this, in fact almost no one believes this, right? There’s a tiny, tiny slice of the chattering classes for whom “Life was better when I was younger” is an acceptable complaint to make, and they have these little conferences or whatever and agree with one another about that phenomenon. But when you look at the actual use of the Web, it is through the roof. And it has continued in an unbroken growth from the early ’90s until now. So, in fact, almost everybody thinks it’s a good idea because they’re embracing it and they’re experimenting with it and they don’t really care what we think.

And when I say “we,” I mean—I am a member of the Chardonnay-swilling East Coast liberal media elite. But I also recognize that anything I might have to say about the utility of the media actually isn’t going to influence whether or not people are going to adopt this. And so once you get out of the idea that basically the previous avatars of the cultural good, and the world that George W.S. Trow chronicled so beautifully Within the Context of No Context—once you grasp that those people are powerless to that effect, powerless with regard to the adoption curve—the question really becomes, “How do you point out an effect where something has been damaged?” And that’s where I think a lot of this conversation about reading breaks down, because if you assume that reading Tolstoy is an a priori good, your world crumbled in 1970. And it’s hard to point to the Web as responsible for any of that because that was a done deal for some time.

If you want to point to more proximate harms, it would be very hard to argue, for example, that innovation, inventiveness, new intellectual discoveries had slowed as a result of the Internet, and so people are left with these kind of mealy-mouth cultural critiques, because nostalgia becomes the only bulwark against change. The actual effects of making more information available to more people have been enormously beneficial to society, yet not to the intellectual gatekeepers in the generation in which that change happened.

RJ: I recently talked to an author who was afraid that we’re slipping into some kind of contemporary Dark Age. Are we seeing a new Luddism?

CS: Of course there’s a new Luddism! There’s always a new Luddism whenever there’s change. I mean, Luddism is specifically a demand that the people who benefited from the old system be consulted before any technology is allowed to disrupt it. That’s what the Luddites wanted. And they wanted it in the most violent, murderously direct way possible. But, to say, essentially, that the change should be stopped because it’s disrupting previous value is exactly Luddite. I mean, no one is anti-technology in general times, right? The use of Luddism as a description for anti-technology is ridiculous. What Luddites are is anti-change, and, in particular, they are anti-change in a way that discomforts the beneficiaries of the previous system.

So anyone saying, essentially, that this is the Dark Ages is, first of all, you know barking up the wrong tree. If you want to look at intellectual inventiveness as the metric of whether or not a society is using a tool for educational purposes or not, I think it would be very difficult, in the present era, to show that the enormous increase in the speed and totality with which novel information is spread to the people who need it is bad for intellectual life. Almost all the people for whom the casual assumption that the European novel is the height of human achievement are essentially assuming that any change in the status of that particular sort of “great books-ish” analysis of human culture—any challenge to that version of the status quo—is itself evidence of decline.

RJ: What’s your response to people who say that all this information that’s out there, all this knowledge that we’re producing is great, and there’s all this access that we didn’t have before. But we also risk information overload alongside, and we don’t—

CS: Oh, those are the stupidest people in the entire debate because they, I mean, almost all of the people arguing that this is the Dark Ages are narcissists, because they’re essentially trying to preserve a particular piece of it. But the information overload people are the most narcissistic because information overload started in Alexandria, in the library of Alexandria, right? That was the first example where we have concrete archaeological evidence that there was more information in one place than one human being could deal with in one lifetime, which is almost the definition of information overload. And the first deep attempt to categorize knowledge so that you could subset; the first take on the information filtering problem appears in the library of Alexandria.

By the time that the publishing industries spun up in Venice in the early- to mid-1500s, the ability to have access to more reading material than you could finish in a lifetime is now starting to become a general problem of the educated classes. And by the 1800s, it’s a general problem of the middle class. So there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.

If you took the contents of an average Barnes and Noble, and you dumped it into the streets and said to someone, “You know what’s in there? There’s some works of Auden in there, there’s some Plato in there. Wade on in and you’ll find what you like.” And if you wade on in, you know what you’d get? You’d get Chicken Soup for the Soul. Or, you’d get Love’s Tender Fear. You’d get all this junk. The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case.

So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do. But, you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that we’re just, you know, we just don’t understand what’s going on.

RJ: So, is this just a generational thing? That younger people have come up using these filters and these technologies and they love it and the older generation is just kind of scared?

CS: Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. I mean, the thing that people say about young people is just that they understand the technology so well. Well, I teach in a graduate program, I see twenty-five-year-olds all the time. They actually don’t understand the technology particularly well. I think I understand quite a lot of it quite a bit better than they do, which is the reason why I’m teaching there and they’re students. The advantage they have over me is that they don’t have to unlearn anything. They don’t have to unlearn the idea that a card catalog is a helpful thing to have. That you need a librarian to find things. That you have to figure out where you’re looking before you what you’re looking for. None of those things are true anymore. And so one of the problems that old people like me suffer from is just we know too many solutions for problems that no longer exist. And it kind of freaks us out to realize that all the things we mastered don’t really add up to much value anymore.

It’s not so much that young people are smart and old people are scared. It’s that young people don’t have to unlearn all the stuff that old people do have to unlearn if we want to understand this world. And unlearning is just about the least fun activity in the world. So, you know, it’s easy to understand why people don’t want to sign up for it. But it’s also kind of pathetic that the people going around talking about information overload don’t stop to factor in the idea that if the twenty-year-olds aren’t complaining about information overload, it probably isn’t the problem we think it is.

RJ: It almost sounds like the framework that you’re providing for this is one of existential angst among these older people who have lost their footing, or their ground in the ..

CS: I mean, we’ll be dead and then it won’t matter.

RJ: That’s great.

CS: I mean, really, I’m just so impatient with the argument that the world should be slowed down to help people who aren’t smart enough to understand what’s going on. It’s in part because I grew up in a generation that benefited enormously from not doing that. Right? The baby boomers, when we were young, we had zero, zero patience for the idea that people who are in their fifties in the ’70s and ’80s should somehow be shielded from cultural changes because somehow the stuff that we were doing was upsetting them. So, now it’s our turn and we ought to just suck it up.

This article is part of the online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. To read that issue’s cover story, entitled “Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information”, click here. The second half of Russ Juskalian’s interview with Clay Shirky will run on Monday, December 23rd.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.