My suspicions of Clay Shirky’s techno-optimism — detailed in several recent posts on this blog — have a genuine intellectual foundation, but I’m also aware that Shirky’s arguments annoy me more than they ought to. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s bugging me, and I think I may have isolated it. Bear with me while I descend through the mists of memory. . . .
I have always disliked it when people use stories of their “humble origins” for rhetorical and moral leverage, which has led me to keep generally silent about my own history. But briefly: I grew up in a working-class family in Birmingham, Alabama. Through most of my childhood my father was in prison; my mother worked to pay the bills, which meant that I was effectively raised by my paternal grandmother, with whom we lived. My grandfather was an engineer for the Frisco railroad, whose frequent long freight hauls meant that we rarely saw him; and when my father got out of prison he worked as a night dispatcher for a trucking company, so he was a ghostly presence as well. (I mainly remember him sleeping on the sofa.) No one in my family had ever attended college, nor did anyone see the value in it: when I decided I wanted to go, my parents had no objection as long as I paid for it myself — which, in the end, I did; every penny. I never worked less than 24 hours a week when I was a full-time student, until my senior year, when I took out loans so I could take an overload to finish my degree. (Even so, it took me five years to graduate, because twice I had to sit out semesters to work full-time to save for tuition.)
But one great gift I received from my family: reading. My mother, grandmother, and father all read constantly. We had televisions, and we used them: my father never turned off the TV: in his house it remained on 24 hours a day once full-time programming became the norm, and he was known to leave it on even when he left town on vacation. But what happened on the tube was largely background noise for readers.
It was all genre fiction: romances for my mom, mysteries for my grandmother, science fiction and Westerns for my dad. I learned to read when I was three, and after a brief period with Dr. Seuss I moved on: I wanted to read what others in my family were reading — well, except for mom’s romances (yuck). So by the time I was six or seven I was deep into the collected works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Louis L’Amour, and Robert A. Heinlein. And that kind of reading would be all that I aspired to until I was about sixteen, at which point certain other vistas opened up for me.
What does all this have to do with Clay Shirky? I’ll explain in a later post.