Creative Destruction and the New Digital Freedom

Here’s Clay Shirky offering some useful optimism against the idea that the internet is eroding the intellectual foundations of our most cherished institutions.  A number of writers have recently argued that the internet has diminished our professional and cultural norms, our understanding of what it means to be exemplary in a particular profession or vocation. Nicolas Carr, for example, has worried that the internet has not only changed the way we read by altering our ability to simply pay attention and process linear text, but that digital media  had profoundly modified the way we process information .  Carr’s caution goes beyond the effects the internet has had on our comprehension ability; Carr’s larger worry is over our insistence on immediate gratification and stimulation, on quick access to short snippets of information, an insistence that may very well have rendered us less contemplative, less thoughtful, unable to tolerate complexity or brook deeper, more meaningful thought.  Here’s Shirky summing up the fear that the young turks are threatening the fabric of our cultural norms:

Digital media have made creating and disseminating text, sound, and images cheap, easy, and global.  The bulk of publicly available media is now created by people who understand little of the professional standards and practices for media.

Instead, these amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions on incipient chaos and intellectual collapse

Shirky goes on, however, to remind that every new access point to media – whether it be print or the digital realm – is often met with much carping and hand-wringing by those most heavily vested in the old structure:

But of course, that’s what always happens.  Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid.  This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.

As Gutenberg’s press spread throughout Europe, the Bible was translated into local languages, enabling direct encounters with the text; this was accompanied by a flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre.  Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting, secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims that the printing press, in not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life.

These claims were, of course, correct.  Print fueled the Protestant Reformation, which did indeed destroy the Church’s pan-European hold on intellectual life.  What the 16th-century foes of print didn’t imagine – couldn’t imagine – was what followed: We built new norms around newly abundant and contemporary literature.  Novels, newspapers, scientific journals, the separation of fiction and nonfiction, all of these innovations were created during the collapse of the scribal system, and all had the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the intellectual range and output of society.

To take a famous example, the essential insight of the scientific revolution was peer review, the idea that science was a collaborative effort that included the feedback and participation of others.  Peer review was a cultural institution that took the printing press for granted as a means of distributing research quickly and widely, but added the kind of cultural constraints that made it valuable.

We’re in a similar phase of transformation today.  As Shirky argues, open source software, collaborative endeavors like Wikipedia, easy access to the creation and distribution of media, and the wide availability of content across all formats has led to a massive proliferation of information.  Content is as easy to access as it is ubiquitous.  This exponential increase in the sheer volume of information has led some to worry about eroding standards – what distinguishes good content from bad, what differentiates well-vetted material  from the salacious or poorly researched, what happens to our sensibilities when even the most vulgar sources are treated as on a par with more professional content providers.

The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into our society as well as we integrated literacy.  This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture…

Shirky’s right.  There’s no reason to believe that the creative destruction we are witnessing today will not give rise to whole new forms of collaboration and creation.  We are likely to see innovations barely conceivable even twenty years ago.  While it’s true that among the innovations and new cultural forms we’re likely to see quite a bit of mediocrity, it’s also true that the most useful and innovative will rise to the top.  Let a thousand flowers bloom – and let the cultural gardners trim and prune away to allow the best to stand forth.

…just as we might want scientific journals without the erotic novels, but that’s not how media works.  Increased freedom to create means increased freedom to create throwaway material, as well as freedom to indulge in the experimentation that eventually makes the good new stuff possible.  There is no easy way to get through a media revolution of this magnitude; the task before us now is to experiment with new ways of using a medium that is social, ubiquitous, and cheap, a medium that changes the landscape by distributing freedom of the press and freedom of assembly as widely as freedom of speech.

Read the whole thing.  And if you’re interested in reading more, check out Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

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