Clay Shirky

American technology writer

Clay Shirky (born 1964) is an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies.

Clay Shirky in 2010

Quotes edit

  • When we change the way we communicate, we change society.
    • Shirky (2008), cited in: Jennex, Murray (2012). Managing Crises and Disasters with Emerging Technologies. p. 3
  • The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of 'comes from everyone' and 'goes everywhere.') We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won't matter much, but the norms we set will. Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus (2008) edit

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, April 26, 2008. (video of the talk)

  • If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. [...] For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV. [...]
And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.
  • I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. [...] And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
    Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. [...]
    We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, "If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?" And I'm betting the answer is yes.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) edit

  • Society is not just the product of its individual members; it is also the product of its constituent groups. The aggregate relations among individuals and groups, among individuals within groups, and among groups forms a network of astonishing complexity.
    • p. 14
  • We use the word "organization" to mean both the state of being organized and the groups that do the organizing... We use one word for both because, at a certain scale, we haven't been able to get organization without organizations; the former seems to imply the latter.
    • p. 29
  • The typical organization is hierarchical, with workers answering to a manager, and that manager answering to a still-higher manager, and so on. The value of such hierarchies is obvious-it vastly simplifies communication among the employees. New employees need only one connection, to their boss, to get started. That's much simpler than trying to have everyone talk to everyone.
    • p. 29
  • Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.
    • p. 139-140

Cognitive Surplus : Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010) edit

  • TV is unbalanced—if I own a TV station, and you own a television, I can speak to you, but you can’t speak to me. Phones, by contrast, are balanced; if you buy the means of consumption, you automatically own the means of production. When you purchase a phone, no one asks if you just want to listen, or if you want to talk on it too. Participation is inherent in the phone, and it’s the same for the computer. When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it. Further, you can share material with your friends, and you can talk about what you consumed or produced or shared. These aren’t additional features; they are part of the basic package.
  • [an Ontario-based bus company] Trentway-Wagar was arguing that because carpooling used to be inconvenient, it should always be inconvenient, and if that inconvenience disappeared, then it should be reinserted by legal fiat. Curiously, an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits itself to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its management. Bus companies provide a critical service—public transportation—but they also commit themselves, as Trentway-Wagar did, to fending off competition from alternative ways of moving people from one place to another.
  • Social production is not a panacea; it is just an alternative. Although we are better off being able to use it when it is valuable, it brings its own challenges, just as production via firms and governments does. Even the simplest pooled effort or voluntary participation can be fraught with tension among the individual participants, and between those individuals and the group. Like many aspects of social life, this problem has no solution; the dilemma can be addressed only by various compromises, none of them wholly satisfactory. One way to help a group of participants improve their ability to function together is the creation and maintenance of shared culture.
  • The problem with alchemy wasn’t that the alchemists had failed to turn lead into gold—no one could do that. The problem, rather, was that the alchemists had failed uninformatively. As a group, the alchemists were notably reclusive; they typically worked alone, they were secretive about their methods and their results, and they rarely accompanied claims of insight or success with anything that we’d recognize today as documentation, let alone evidence. Alchemical methods were hoarded rather than shared, passed down from master to apprentice, and when the alchemists did describe their experiments, the descriptions were both incomplete and vague. As Boyle himself complained of the alchemists’ publications, “Hermetic Books have such involved Obscuritys that they may justly be compared to Riddles written in Cyphers. For after a Man has surmounted the difficulty of decyphering the Words & Terms, he finds a new & greater difficulty to discover the meaning of the seemingly plain Expression.”
  • At every turn, skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile, or suggested that if it does work, it is a kind of cheating, because sharing at a scale that competes with older institutions is somehow wrong. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft denounced the shared production of software as communism. Robert McHenry, a former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, likened Wikipedia to a public rest room. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, compared bloggers to monkeys. These complaints, self-interested though they were, echoed more broadly held beliefs. Shared, unmanaged effort might be fine for picnics and bowling leagues, but serious work is done for money, by people who work in proper organizations, with managers directing their work.
  • Gutenberg’s press flooded the market. In the early 1500s John Tetzel, the head pardoner for German territories, would sweep into a town with a collection of already printed indulgences, hawking them with a phrase usually translated as “When a coin a coffer rings / A soul for heaven springs.” The nakedly commercial aspects of indulgences, among other things, enraged Martin Luther, who in 1517 launched an attack on the Church in the form of his famous Ninety-five Theses. He first nailed the theses to a church door in Wittenberg, but copies were soon printed up and disseminated widely. Luther’s critique, along with the spread of Bibles translated into local languages, drove the Protestant Reformation, plunging the Church (and Europe) into crisis. The tool that looked like it would strengthen the social structure of the age instead upended it. From the vantage point of 1450, the new technology seemed to do nothing more than offer the existing society a faster and cheaper way to do what it was already doing. By 1550 it had become apparent that the volume of indulgences had debauched their value, creating “indulgence inflation”—further evidence that abundance can be harder for a society to deal with than scarcity. Similarly, the spread of Bibles wasn’t a case of more of the same, but rather of more is different—the number of Bibles produced increased the range of Bibles produced, with cheap Bibles translated into local languages undermining the interpretative monopoly of the clergy, since churchgoers could now hear what the Bible said in their own language, and literate citizens could read it for themselves, with no priest anywhere near. By the middle of the century, Luther’s Protestant Reformation had taken hold, and the Church’s role as the pan-European economic, cultural, intellectual, and religious force was ending.

Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream (2015) edit

  • Then there are the phones designed for East Asian sensibilities. The same region that brought us the selfie stick also brought us Oppo, a company whose phone’s principal selling points include a high-quality camera and custom software that automatically airbrushes photos with faces in them. The ad campaigns emphasize a particularly performative form of femininity, since, in a nice touch, the software makes a guess about the gender of the subject—everyone gets smoother skin, but only the ladies get their lips reddened. Despite successful rollouts in Thailand and Korea, Oppo has not made much of a dent in markets outside East Asia. Their U.S. launch was a bust.
  • Xiaomi, founded in Beijing in 2010 by Lei Jun, a computer scientist and charismatic serial entrepreneur now in his mid-forties, has accomplished a lot in half a decade. Even just looking at its sales figures, the superlatives pile up. In its short life, it has gone from a startup focused on making a new mobile phone interface to beating Samsung as the number one phone vendor in the largest market in the world in 2014. Its products are so popular in China that it has become the third largest ecommerce firm there just selling its own products, after the general marketplace sites Alibaba and, and ahead of
  • Wiko, a French phone company, went from concept to company when the founders were shopping for parts in Shenzhen (as one does). Wiko had trouble raising money—few investors believed a new European phone company could succeed—so they took an investment from the Chinese manufacturer Tinno Mobile. Wiko is thus mostly Chinese, both owned and supplied by Tinno, but given its thin veneer of French design and marketing it looks like a local firm to the French. The resulting excitement over Wiko as a homegrown business helped them to become the second largest phone vendor in France (after Samsung, as usual). This preserves the pattern of “designed elsewhere, made in China,” but with the twist that ownership, not just sourcing and manufacturing, has now moved to China as well.
  • Despite the firewall, Chinese companies continue to advertise themselves on Facebook and Google—my dentist in Shanghai puts his Gmail address in scrolling LEDs in front of his practice. To do business with the rest of the world, Chinese firms increasingly have to get good at using services that are both essential and (theoretically) unavailable.

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