Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

last round with Shirky

So to get to the heart of the matter that I’ve been discussing in the previous two posts: I doubt that Clay Shirky writes lolcat captions. It would be a waste of his time, wouldn't it? He has better things to do, doesn't he? After all, as his Wikipedia bio shows, this is a guy who has spent his whole adult life in culturally elite institutions — where, let me add, is just where he ought to be, given his sheer smarts, his lively imagination, and his intellectual ambition.

But when a guy like that says to millions of other people, “You folks just go ahead and make your lolcats and add stuff to your MySpace pages; we all have our own contributions to make, however small they might be, to the collective knowledge” — isn't there something deeply condescending about that? Isn't the implication quite strong that people should content themselves with their jokes and status updates because they really aren't capable of anything more demanding?

Which, I think, accounts for my excessive annoyance at Shirky’s line of thought: I come from the lolcats-and-MySpace classes. But because lolcats and MySpace didn't exist when I was growing up, and because my parents happened to be readers, I was able to assemble — largely by myself, because my education up through high school was poor at best — a framework of intellectual possibility that I was ultimately able to pursue and inherit. Though not without a great deal of work and many blind stumbles and detours along the way. (And, I might add, I acquired this vision largely through reading the kinds of books that many, perhaps most, people in my profession dismiss as trash. But that’s a topic for another post, or essay, or book.)

So I suppose I’m a little touchy about Shirky’s arguments because they diminish, or perhaps dismiss altogether, the value of my own early aspirations, and the labor I put in to achieve them. But there’s another, less personal and perhaps less subjective, way to resist Shirky’s model, and that’s the one that Jaron Lanier offers in You Are Not a Gadget: for Lanier, the celebration of the crowd or the hive comes at an unacceptably high price when it leads to the diminishment of the person — indeed, of the very idea of personhood. I’ll return to these ideas at some point, but for now I just want to note and endorse something Lanier says at the outset of his book, in a sentence that incisively undermines Shirky’s blithe confidence that every form of online participation is both generous and creative: “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” And the process of becoming somebody takes time, effort, discipline, and study. It doesn't happen through posting lolcats.

22 comments:

  • I'm not sure that's a fair summary of Clay's point.

    Certainly in his RSA speech in London recently he was simply pointing out that the infrastructure which allows this sort of open-sourced, wisdom-of-crowds phenomenon to take root also supports lots of banal, less worthy or even damaging things – you can’t have one without the other. He mentions the fact that erotic novels were the mainstay of many early printing presses but nobody would deny the long-term value of that technology. By my reading he wasn’t suggesting that those more banal everyday uses for technology actually made any material contribution to our ‘cognitive surplus’ (let alone any suggestion that some people could only contribute via those routes); he was simply acknowledging their existence and that seems reasonable to me.

    Nor can I see why his theory undermines laudable personal advancement of the sort you clearly achieved?

    A little more here - http://ow.ly/2euoL

  • I was going to say some nice things about Clay Shirky today, mostly around what my wife and her friends have been calling their "gift" culture, and what he calls "creativity and generosity."

    But first he bashes TV, and now he denigrates the erotic!?! I can stand no more! Clay Shirky, you are my sworn enemy! See you in Hell!!!!!!

  • Liam, let me try to clarify and add (which may bring further confusion): You're right that Shirky doesn't say that lolcats are great things, but he does say that while they're "the stupidest possible creative act," they're still a creative act, and they're sending the vital message "You can play this game too." "The real gap," he writes, "is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap." He makes this point in order to say that the person watching TV is "doing nothing— which would also apply to movies, and as far as I can tell (several reviewers have pointed this out) reading books too.

    So Shirky argues, repeatedly, that the stupidest thing you can do on the internet is better than any form of aesthetic or pleasurable reception. The example he always uses for TV is "Gilligan's Island," but he doesn't make any allowances for the possibility of something better than "Gilligan's Island" being on TV. This is a big problem. There's no room for the possibility that there can be a thoughtful, creative encounter with visual culture. So he leaves the clear impression that whatever you're doing on your computer, as long as it's not just reading and clicking links, you're doing something superior to the person watching The Sorrow and the Pity or Planet Earth or whatever on the tube. That encourages people to be content with "the stupidest possible creative act" because they are so far ahead of others. And that discourages the kind of self-formation I think is important.

    And then there is the argument that as long as the activity of making continues to increase on the internet, some proportion of that activity will be valuable. But what he doesn't consider is whether more valuable creations might be happening if there weren't so many people making lolcats and leaving snarky comments on blog posts. (Present company excepted, of course!) As I've said repeatedly, this is all mere assertion, and I need some evidence before I can buy it.

    (As a side note, Shirky's history is usually bad: he says that we had printed erotic novels before we had scientific journals, but we had printed scientific books, and Bibles, and biblical commentaries, long before we had the erotic novels.)

  • Alan, I'd be very interested in hearing more of your opinions on the value of "trashy" literature, particularly given the frequent Christian emphasis on reading "good" literature. Do you distinguish between the intellectual formation provided by "trashy" vs. that provided by "good" literature? How do your opinions in this area play out in your own teaching?

  • Anon, that's a big question, far too big for a comment thread. Or maybe even for a post. I do deal with these issues a good bit in my forthcoming book on reading.

  • Michael Straight said...

    So Shirky argues, repeatedly, that the stupidest thing you can do on the internet is better than any form of aesthetic or pleasurable reception.

    I haven't read Shirky. Is that really what he's saying? I'd hope he would make the much more defensible argument that creating and contributing are good things, period. That making something (even something stupid) is better than a life that is exclusively receiving what other people make.

    And let's be realistic about what we're contrasting with what. The person whose creative output never rises above a LOLcat is probably not forsaking great literature or even great TV to do so.

  • The person whose creative output never rises above a LOLcat is probably not forsaking great literature or even great TV to do so.

    A person who makes only silly or stupid things is not necessarily capable of only that. That's the point of my story about the culture I come from, the family of people who have many of the same gifts I do but who never found the way to more ambitious endeavors. I don't think writing off much of the population as intellectual no-hopers is "realistic," I think it's defeatist at best and mean-spirited at worst.

  • vanderleun said...

    "where, let me add, is just where he ought to be, given his sheer smarts, his lively imagination, and his intellectual ambition."

    If we could brick him in like that fellow in Poe's A Cask of Amontillado I'd go with that.

  • In music, it is often said that what is needed is a creator (composer), recreator (performer) and listener (audience) to complete the circuit. (Substitutions are allowed for other arts and media.) There is expertise involved in each of those exploits. After all, few would be content creating or performing for an audience of buffoons. Shirky's argument (as reported by Prof. Jacobs) privileges creation over either of the other two aspects without consideration of quality, which is rather heedless.

  • I think that's a fair summary, brutus, though of course I may have gotten some things wrong. I keep looking back through Shirky's book to find more concessions and nuances, but I haven't found them yet!

  • Thanks Alan. Perhaps I made the mistake of coming to Shirky's defence having only heard that 1 hour-long speech rather than read his output.

    If he is arguing that there's more value in the most banal online activity than there is in, say, reading Proust or even watching Mad Men then yes, that's an absurd idea.

  • Liam, he certainly never puts it that bluntly, and I'm sure if we put it to him that way he would demur. But again, in the book he equates (a) watching TV, (b) "consuming," and (c) "doing nothing," If he were to agree that there was ways of watching TV, watching movies, and reading that are not mere empty consumption, his arguments would suffer considerably. But I think that's what he needs to do. and maybe he will: more than a few reviewers have pointed out these problems.

  • "There was ways"? Um. . . .

  • I see where you're coming from much better now, Alan. But a few points.

    The way I see it, there are two categories of people we are discussing here: (1) "cultural elites" defined as the type of people who like high culture, and (2) "elites," period, who are college-educated and have good jobs (these two things having become increasingly correlated in the past few decades). Without really referring to any statistics -- so correct me if I am wrong -- I'll also say that many elites are not cultural elites and perhaps some cultural elites are not elites. Also, the number of elites is far more than the number of cultural elites.

    In Alan's case, he managed to pull himself up and became a member of the elite. That he also ended up becoming a member of the cultural elite is really incidental. He could as well have ended up working in a well-paid job in Sales or Marketing for a Fortune 500 company or become a lawyer or a programmer with no interest whatsoever in literature.

    Shirky's ideal world is clearly a world where most people DON'T aspire to be cultural elites**. But -- and this is key -- it is by NO means a world where people don't aspire to be elites (and that seems to me to be Alan's real concern). Is Shirky's ideal world -- a world where reading certain kinds of books is not considered the highest form of cultural activity -- something I would like? Clearly not, since I like to read and I do aspire to be part of the cultural elite. But that's just me. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter much.

    On the other hand, a world where people don't aspire to be elites, either because they felt the game was rigged or because it just wasn't possible, would be catastrophic. But I really don't see that happening because people are contributing to LOLCats in their spare time.

    **I think a world where some people don't aspire to be cultural elites is impossible. What is more likely is that one version of high culture (reading certain types of books) would be replaced by another (LOLCats?).

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't think writing off much of the population as intellectual no-hopers is "realistic," I think it's defeatist at best and mean-spirited at worst.

    Let me see if I understand you. Shirky thinks it's a good thing when people go from reading/watching trash to actually making their own trash. But you think that's condescending, that it's not actually any better at all.

    You maybe want people to go from reading/watching trash to reading/watching something worthwhile? For you the issue of whether someone is reading/watching or creating is unimportant compared with whether the material and ideas with which they are engaged are worthwhile?

  • Four hours in the car yesterday with my techno-optimtic wife-- who has her own "humble roots" story -- taking about Clay, and Alan, and computers. Too long to post here, but I hope will be of interest to some readers:

    We were at IKEA today. Both of us really like IKEA. But the more time you spend shopping there, the more you realized the #1 design consideration for *everything* IKEA sells is how much space it takes up in storage and transit. Everything else flows from this consideration, and as wide a variety of stylish, good value proposition goods as you can purchase at IKEA, every last one of them is shape by this one overriding consideration.

    That’s sort of how I feel about the internet. Like IKEA, there’s a lot of stuff about it that’s a good value proposition, but there’s also this one overriding design consideration that everything else has to bend to. Yes, search is part it, but it’s just one part of it. And like when I’m shopping at IKEA, when I’m socializing, being “productive” and generally living my life on the internet, I’m (more or less at various times) aware of the way things are bent to the needs of the internet.


    The gist is that whether or not Clay Shirky is right or wrong (I come down on the rightish side, his vision of the change we are undergoing is narrow. The rest here:

    http://www.tonycomstock.com/2010/07/22/the-promise-and-price-of-living-at-the-mall/

  • Michael asks: "For you the issue of whether someone is reading/watching or creating is unimportant compared with whether the material and ideas with which they are engaged are worthwhile?" That's pretty close. I want to say that it's the quality of attention that counts, and that therefore Shirky's simplistic distinction between "creating" and "consuming" is not helpful. It's possible to make something thoughtlessly; it's possible to "consume" (i.e., read or watch or listen to) something with thoughtful attention. And above all, I want to say that people don't need to be told that whatever they do is just fine, because it all contributes somehow to the hive mind, but rather to be encouraged to be intellectually and artistically ambitious. To strive for something.

    Also, scritic says of me: "He could as well have ended up working in a well-paid job in Sales or Marketing for a Fortune 500 company or become a lawyer or a programmer with no interest whatsoever in literature." Maybe I'm not the best judge of these matters, but I don't think that's right. Given my personality, and given the fact that I was raised in a home of unambitious working-class people who just happened to read a lot, I don't think there was any chance that I could have ended up with the kind of jobs scritic mentions (except maybe programmer). I had no vision whatsoever of rising in socio-economic class. I'm pretty sure I was going to be a book nerd no matter what, and the only question was whether I'd find a job that paid me to be a book nerd. Thanks be to God, I found such a job.

    And Tomny, thanks for the thoughts and the link.

  • Um . . . that's "Tony." My ability to type is asymptotically approaching zero.

  • This one is good too:

    www.ikeafans.com

  • Given my personality, and given the fact that I was raised in a home of unambitious working-class people who just happened to read a lot, I don't think there was any chance that I could have ended up with the kind of jobs scritic mentions (except maybe programmer).

    Well, may be not you then. But I can easily see others, raised by unambitious working-class people, who finish college and get good "elite" jobs, all without having the slightest interest in high literature. And I can't quite picture a scenario where posting to lolcats stops these young people from being ambitious in life.

  • du Garbandier said...

    Alan, what do you make of Elizabeth Drescher's riff on the Carr-Shirky debate, which is to suggest that the medievals were great multitaskers, unlike the "focus" and solitary "concentration"-driven members of the Enlightenment?

    It seems to me that despite some interesting points, Drescher never actually describes anything I would call "multitasking."

  • Thanks for that link, du Garbandier. The history's pretty iffy there, but there are thoughts worthy of a response. Maybe before too long. . . .

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