Tag Archives: Clay Shirky

Back to the future (of newspapers), with Benjamin

This will not be the first time that a return to the work of Walter Benjamin has served to kick-start this blog’s overarching project.  In this case, I was prompted to reach for Benjamin after reading a passage from Clay Shirky’s recently published Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  While I cited the passage in question a few posts back, I will reproduce its core claim here.

The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics.  You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any form of media in the previous  five hundred years.  Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore.  Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data.

You can see this reflected in common parlance.  No one ever says, Give me a copy of your phone number.  Your phone number is the same number for everybody, and since data is made of numbers, the data is the same for everybody.  Because of this curious property of numbers, the old distinction between copying tools for professionals and those for amateurs – printing presses that make high-quality versions for the pros, copy machines for the rest of us – is over.  Everyone has access to a medium that makes versions so identical that the old distinction between originals and copies has given way to an unlimited number of equally perfect versions. [54-55]

Some of you will understand my urge, upon reading and reflecting on Shirky’s formulations, to return with dispatch to what is probably Benjamin’s best-known essay, whose title in English is “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”  I was fortunate to have at hand the volume edited by my dear friend Tom Levin and my former colleague at Princeton, Mike Jennings, which includes “The Work of Art” as well as Benjamin’s other writings on media, some of which are lesser known, especially to readers of English translations of his work.

Was it serendipity that led my eyes down the table of contents, past “The Work of Art” and other essays I’d read before, some more than once, to the volume’s final section, “The Publishing Industry and Radio?”  Arguably.  In any case, here I found a small goldmine, some of which I will share over my next several posts.

For now, I will copy-blog Benjamin’s brief essay entitled “The Newspaper.”  Its prophetic character will be evident to anyone who has reflected for longer than 30 seconds on the internet’s impacts on journalism, publishing, and media.  I would simply suggest by way of editorial comment that those who concern themselves with the future of newspapers might do worse than to return to this particular trace of their past.

The Newspaper

In our writing, opposites that in happier ages fertilized one another have become insoluble antinomies.  Thus, science and belles lettres, criticism and literary production, culture and politics, fall apart in disorder and lose all connection with one another.  The scene of this literary confusion is the newspaper; its content, “subject matter” that denies itself any other form of organization than that imposed on it by the reader’s impatience.  For impatience is the state of mind of the newspaper reader.  And this impatience is not just that of the politician expecting information, or of the speculator looking for a stock tip; behind it smolders the impatience of  people who are excluded and who think they have the right to see their own interests expressed.  The fact that nothing binds the reader more tightly to his paper than this all-consuming impatience, his longing for daily nourishment, has long been exploited by publishers, who are constantly inaugurating new columns to address the reader’s questions, opinions, and protests.  Hand in hand, therefore, with the indiscriminate assimilation of facts goes the equally indiscriminate assimilation of readers, who are instantly elevated to collaborators.  Here, however, a dialectical moment lies concealed:  the decline of writing in this press turns out to be the formula for its restoration in a different one.  For since writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public that the press has maintained (although it is tending to loosen it through routine) is disappearing in a socially desirable way.  The reader is at all times ready to become a writer – that is, a describer or even a prescriber.  As an expert – not perhaps in a discipline, but perhaps in a post that he holds – he gains access to authorship.  Work itself has its turn to speak.  And its representation in words becomes a part of the ability that is needed for its exercise.  Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes public property.  It is, in a word, the literarization of the conditions of living that masters the otherwise insoluble antinomies.  And it is at the scene of the limitless debasement of the word – the newspaper, in short – that its salvation is being prepared.

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“Give me a copy of your phone number”

The following paragraphs from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus jumped off the page as I read them again just now.  What would Benjamin make of them?

Or Gonzalez-Torres, for that matter?

The internet is the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics.  You don’t need to understand anything about its plumbing to appreciate how different it is from any form of media in the previous five hundred years.  Since all the data is digital (expressed as numbers), there is no such thing as a copy anymore.  Every piece of data, whether an e-mailed love letter or a boring corporate presentation, is identical to every other version of the same piece of data.

You can see this reflected in common parlance.  No one ever says, Give me a copy of your phone number.  Your phone number is the same number for everybody, and since data is made of numbers, the data is the same for everybody.  Because of this curious property of numbers, the old distinction between copying tools for professionals and those for amateurs – printing presses that make high-quality versions for the pros, copy machines for the rest of us – is over.  Everyone has access to a medium that makes versions so identical that the old distinction between originals and copies has given way to an unlimited number of equally perfect versions. [54-55]

To be continued, in one form or another.

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Research in motion: from my “serendipity” notebook

Pronunciation:/ˌsɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪti/

noun

[mass noun]  the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:  a fortunate stroke of serendipity

[count noun]  a series of small serendipities

These definitions, plucked from the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition, are accompanied in characteristic OED fashion by an account of the word’s “origin”:  “coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of.””  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0756730#m_en_gb0756730

Already, then, my interrogation of the significance of “serendipity” exemplifies serendipity, offers itself as an example of what the word, from its putative “origin,” means to say.  I certainly was not in quest of a fairy tale that, in more years than I care to count as a student and teacher of comparative literature, I had never read, in any language (could this in any way be connected to the fact that I still have outstanding student loans?).  How peculiar, then, to be prompted (no doubt in part by my recent reading of Clay Shirky, a great champion of the cognitive surplus behind Wikipedia), to find myself clicking from the OED entry on “serendipity” to the free encyclopedia’s account of The Three Princes of Serendip.  Allow me to recount some of what I learned.

The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michelle Tramezzino in Venice in 1557.  Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht Bihisht of 1302.  The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.  Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka.

I am riveted as I go on to read that

The story has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip

So, what do a lost camel and the future of journalism have in common?  Stay tuned.

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Media 101 (or is that 2.0?)

What follow are some edifying formulations on “media” from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (Penguin, 2010, 26-27).

Because we are increasingly producing and sharing media, we have to relearn what that word can mean.  The simple sense of media is the middle layer in any communication, whether it is as ancient as the alphabet or as recent as mobile phones.  On top of this straightforward and relatively neutral definition is another notion, inherited from the patterns of media consumption over the last several decades, that media refers to a collection of businesses, from newspapers and magazines to radio and television, that have particular ways of producing material and particular ways of making money.  And as long as we use media to refer just to those businesses, and to that material, the word will be an anachronism, a bad fit for what’s happening today.  Our ability to balance consumption with production and sharing, our ability to connect with one another, is transforming the sense of media from a particular sector of the economy to a cheap and globally available tool for organized sharing.  (26-7, emphasis added)

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“Cognitive Surplus,” indeed

Yesterday’s mail delivery brought my pre-ordered copy of Clay Shirky’s volume Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  Having learned a good deal from Clay’s writings, lectures and interviews, I’ve looked forward to reading another book-length offering.  Sure enough, I was rewarded (almost in passing) as early as page 15.

In the context of my efforts to bring an “epistemology of media lag” argument to bear on contemporary claims for the so-called “real-time” Web, I was particularly gratified to read, in the book’s first chapter, Clay’s account of one example of individual members of society “voluntarily making and sharing things” by way of social media.

To pick one example, a service called Ushahidi was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya.  In December 2007 a disputed election pitted supporters and opponents of President Mwai Kibaki against one another.  Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan political activist, blogged about the violence when the Kenyan government banned the mainstream media from reporting on it.  She then asked her readers to e-mail or post comments about the violence they were witnessing on her blog.  The method proved so popular that her blog, Kenyan Pundit, became a critical source of first-person reporting.  The observations kept flooding in, and within a couple of days Okolloh could no longer keep up with it.  She imagined a service, which she dubbed Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness” or “testimony”), that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting (she had been doing it by hand), with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time [emphasis added].  She floated the idea on her blog, which attracted the attention of the programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia.  The three of them got on a conference call and hashed out how such a service might work, and within three days, the first version of Ushahidi went live.

Mindful of Clay’s own creativity and generosity, I would humbly propose an amendment to the final clause:  make that near-live.

Postscript:  The bio on the jacket-flap enumerates Clay’s consulting gigs, which include BP, for whom he did work on “network design.”  On day 57 of the spill, with a newly publicized flow rate of 35,000-60,000 barrels per day, as Obama is about to address the world from the Oval Office on events unfolding in the Gulf, it would seem that someone missed the boat.

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More context for Haiti: Clay Shirky on the Sichuan quake of 2008

In his epilogue to Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky recalls the role of social media in reporting the Sichuan earthquake of May, 2008, and its aftermath.  These pages (293 ff.) are valuable for what they analyze and what they portend.  Below is a brief excerpt.

The one big lesson from the Sichuan quake is that there is never just one big lesson.  Truly complex events have complex causes and complex ramifications.  There are many threads to this story:  the effects of social cables of various thickness running between the world’s regions, of Small Worlds networks as a natural amplifier of news, of the former audience committing acts of journalism in the quake zone, of the hybridization between professional and amateur media, of the tension between citizen desire for openness and governmental desire for control.  All of these are connected pieces of the story, and although they are all patterns we have seen in the world before, their operation during the Sichuan quake was at a scale and level of intensity that dwarfed even the response after the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami.  An event like the quake and its aftermath highlights how ubiquitous, rapid, and global social media has become, but it also accelerates the pace of that change, because once people adopt social media in an unusual situation, they are much likelier to integrate it into their everyday lives.

Increased options for communication in groups don’t just mean we will get more of the patterns we already recognize; they also mean we will also get more new kinds of patterns.  More is different, even for people who understand that more is different, which explains in part our persistent difficulties in getting technology predictions right.  (297-8)

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In Finnegan’s Wake: Reading ‘Here Comes Everybody’

I posted the citation below, from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, earlier today, via Blackberry.  A friend then reminded me, by way of a timely email, of something I once knew but meanwhile forgot:  that James Joyce assigned the same title to the early drafts of Finnegan’s Wake.  What could I do but re-title the post?    

“Knowingly sharing your work with others is the simplest way to take advantage of the new social tools.”  (49)

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