Friday, 6 February 2009

Clay Shirky at the LSE

Clay Shirky may be right that a loose collection of bloggers can't replace a newsroom full of journalists, but London's social reporters did a pretty good job of covering his visit this week. David Wilcox has a great write-up of his Tuesday night talk at the LSE, which I was there for, while Michael Mahemoff posted detailed notes from the ICA on Wednesday.

It was Shirky's change of mind on the democratic potential of the web which made headlines. "We are not ready for massive legitimating moves of unstructured participation across the larger issues," he told the LSE audience. "That’s the first time I’ve said that in public."

The key example he returned to during the discussion was - the Obama administration's official transition website, which asked people to vote on what should be his first priority in office. The issue that came out on top was the legalisation of marijuana.

Andy Gibson from Sociability points out that this doesn't actually prove anything about how people behave in a context of collaborative decision-making, since the site only gave them an opportunity to get attention. An exercise without any consequences isn't much of a guide to how people will act in a more serious situation. "If you want to know how people behave in power, look at how we run our organisations, our communities, our families, our relationships."

Meanwhile, JP Rangaswami - who was at the ICA talk - muses about whether choice over the allocation of our taxes might be the way to get beyond the limits of voting systems. That would certainly be one way to add that necessary seriousness. (And if it sounds unrealistic, check out the history of Porto Alegre's participative budget - and the UK government's plans for local participatory budgets in the near future.)

Interesting discussions - and a reminder of why I'm glad to work with such bright people as Andy and JP on School of Everything. But I wanted to pick out four other ideas which Shirky touched on, which relate to my recent posts about social media and the recession.

The sudden shift in role for new technologies in a time of crisis: For example, the London tube bombings took camera phones and video-sharing sites from "that's interesting" (or not, according to your opinion), to "this is a critical tool that we must have."

If this can happen as a result of a one-off event, what about longer historical moments of crisis, such as the one we're living through? "The global financial crisis we're in the middle of means that the speed and depth of adoption of some of these tools is going to surprise us - because we're in a situation where none of the old things work."

The complex relationship between money and motivation: Someone asked a question about how you pay the rent, if you devote yourself to a collaborative project. In response, Shirky brought up Edward Deci's experiment into the relationship between external reward and intrinsic motivation.

Deci set two groups of students the task of solving a kind of puzzle. One group were paid per puzzle solved, the other group weren't paid at all. After telling them that they had completed the task, he left each group in the room and observed their behaviour over the next few minutes. He found that those who hadn't been paid continued playing with the puzzles - whereas those who were paid tended not to. Conclusion: being paid to do something can actually reduce the intrinsic reward you might otherwise have found in the activity. Or, as Shirky put it:

The link between solving the grocery shortage problem and doing what you have to do isn't, in fact, linear - and there are places where money actually worsens the transaction. If you have a nice date, it's acceptable to send flowers the next day, it is not acceptable to send the amount of money the flowers would have cost!

It seems to me that, if - as I wrote last week - we need to get beyond the binary of employed/unemployed, the subtle relationship between intrinsically-rewarding activity and financially reward which Deci's experiment highlighted is worth bearing in mind.

The possibilities of the "cognitive surplus": I'm cheating slightly here, since Shirky didn't really talk about "cognitive surplus" on Tuesday - though he did when I saw him last year at Demos (here's the podcast). The basic idea is that major social changes can liberate a lot of time and energy, which initially gets channelled into an addictive activity which at least keeps people docile. According to Shirky, this happened in the early Industrial Revolution with gin, and again in the 20th century with television. After the gin era, the same energy was channelled more fruitfully into the social reform of the 19th century, the age of public libraries and self-improvement societies. So what comes after the TV era...?

Now, I'm not comfortable with the kind of treating-people-as-resources thinking which a phrase like "cognitive surplus" represents. But it's certainly true that one of the stereotypes of unemployment is of someone sitting at home in front of the TV all day. If there are suddenly a lot more people who are used to working full time and now need something else to do, how could we make it easier to use that extra time and energy in other ways?

The main characteristic of emerging models is their diversity: Shirky was talking specifically about making money. "This isn't a transition from Business Model A to Business Model B, it's a transition from Business Model A to Business Models B to Z."

To me, the emphasis on not trying to find a single replacement model applies similarly to the traditional concept of the "job" - I'm convinced that less of us will have "jobs" in future, but that that doesn't have to mean that more of us are "unemployed", in the sense of having nothing to do and being unable to support ourselves. It also applies (as we've been discussing in the comments on last week's post) to the kinds of spaces for learning, making, collaborating, hanging out and starting new projects which I wrote about: a national, one-size-fits-all programme to create such spaces would be a disaster.

I realise that's a lot of ground skimmed over quite quickly. I'm writing more about some of this for Monday's issue of Agit8, and I look forward to carrying on the conversation - here, there and elsewhere.


happyseaurchin said...


especially like deci's little experiment
and business model Z
though i might call my version
business model O

you are definitely pursuing a rich line of thinking

be well!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this right up. Wish I could have attended. Re Clay's statement:

"We are not ready for massive legitimating moves of unstructured participation across the larger issues"

I agree but am not sure that we ever will be ready for unstructured participation - unless Clay means one day we will be ready for Anarchy? Don't we need some stucture to participate (realising that some structures are very 'unstructured' eg Anarchy).

Going on the quote above alone (and hoping I'm not taking it out of context) - it doesn't seem Clay has actually said anything of significance here "That’s the first time I’ve said that in public."


+ resulting in Marijuana headlines doesn't mean much to me initially - or perhaps he explained why it does?

Anonymous said...

I think he's just done a 'Shirky'

(def. saying a lot without saying anything)

United Diversity said...


One thing I think is really needed is a very good open source online participative budget platform.

Apparently Mozilla Foundation are working on distributed decision making stuff, hopefully they'll make a stab at sorting it.



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