Shirky explains: destroying limitations is good for culture

Clay Shirky continues to post astonishing and smart responses to Internet nay-sayers on the Many to Many blog. Today he blew me away with a response to the growing lament that the Internet's lack of limitations is destroying culture, which is created by limits.
Sven Bikerts, the literary critic, has a post in the Boston Globe, Lost in the blogosphere, that is almost indescribably self-involved. His two complaints are that newspapers are reducing the space allotted to literary criticism, and too many people on the Web are writing about books. In other words, literary criticism, as practiced during Bikerts’ lifetime, was just right, and having either fewer or more writers are both lamentable situations.

In order that the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of his complaint not become too obvious, Bikerts frames the changing landscape not as a personal annoyance but as A Threat To Culture Itself. As he puts it “…what we have been calling “culture” at least since the Enlightenment – is the emergent maturity that constrains unbounded freedom in the interest of mattering.”

This is silly. The constraints of print were not a product of “emergent maturity.” They were accidents of physical production. Newspapers published book reviews because their customers read books and because publishers took out ads, the same reason they published pieces about cars or food or vacations. Some newspapers hired critics because they could afford to, others didn’t because they couldn’t. Ordinary citizens didn’t write about books in a global medium because no such medium existed. None of this was an attempt to “constrain unbounded freedom” because there was no such freedom to constrain; it was just how things were back then.