So, again, how do those exciting autobiographical revelations from my last post relate to Clay Shirky’s ideas about cognitive surplus? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. . . .
So Shirky’s key idea — which is expressed fully enough in a talk he gave in 2008; the new book doesn't add all that much, as far as I can tell — goes something like this:1) Thanks primarily to a series of technological developments, many millions of the people in the developed nations have more free time than they used to have;
It’s the last point that’s the key. An example often given to illustrate the wisdom of crowds is this: bring an ox into the village square, get everyone in the village to guess its weight, average their guesses, and you’ll end up with something closer to the correct number than any one expert is likely to produce. (Sometimes the illustration involves guessing the number of marbles in a jar, or something like that — you get the idea.) Shirky is banking heavily on this principle being operative in every aspect of human culture, in such a way that while any one person’s contribution to any particular endeavor may have infinitesimal value, economies of scale mean that the total achievements of the crowd taken as a whole will be vast.
But is this true? Are there really no limits to the wisdom of crowds? And will economies of scale really take care of everything? Well, Jaron Lanier — whose book You Are Not a Gadget, while it came out before Shirky’s, is a kind of refutation of Shirky’s key claims — isn't buying it. There are some problems that crowds just don't have the wisdom to solve, because some problems call for expertise. “It seems to me,” Lanier writes, “that even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy — quadrillions of them, perhaps — and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, let alone a great one.”
Lanier points out that the go-to example for celebrants of such wisdom is Wikipedia, but the (this is my point, not Lanier's) only area in which Wikipedia provides anything that can't be found elsewhere is popular culture, and even in that case all it gives us is lists and summaries. Really cool lists and summaries, in many cases — how about the names of all the spaceships in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels? — but nothing that creates or innovates. (In fact, creation, innovation, and "original research" are forbidden on Wikipedia.) In the sciences, Wikipedia simply copies and pastes what has been discovered elsewhere and can be found elsewhere; and in the humanities, the less said the better. Much is taken verbatim from public-domain print dictionaries.
There's a funny moment in You Are Not a Gadget when Lanier imagines his 1980s self looking into the future to discover the great achievements of the hive mind, only to discover that they are a variant of Unix (Linux) and an encyclopedia. That's it? That's the best you got?
And in the meantime, what becomes of the person who is devoting most of her cognitive surplus to making lolcat captions, because Clay Shirky told her that by doing so she’s doing her part for the hive mind? That’s the question that leads us back to my own story — but that will require at least one more post.