Clay Shirky at TED: "How the Internet will (one day) transform government"

Clay Shirky's TED talk, "How the Internet will (one day) transform government," is a smart, fast, funny look at how the Internet lowers the cost of doing things together. Given that the core task of government and industry is the coordination of collective effort, this lowering cost means big changes.

The open-source world has learned to deal with a flood of new, oftentimes divergent, ideas using hosting services like GitHub -- so why can’t governments? In this rousing talk Clay Shirky shows how democracies can take a lesson from the Internet, to be not just transparent but also to draw on the knowledge of all their citizens.

Clay Shirky argues that the history of the modern world could be rendered as the history of ways of arguing, where changes in media change what sort of arguments are possible -- with deep social and political implications.

Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. It’s a nice idea, but Shirky completely misses the critical, fundamental difference between the two ecosystems:

    Open source software is voluntary in every way.

    People choose for themselves to write it; people choose for themselves to use it; people choose for themselves to fork it, abandon it, write it in haiku, whatever. No one forces anyone to pay for it; no one forces anyone to use it, no one forces anyone to contribute. And I think it’s pretty clear that this is the only possible way it can work. The software is developed by consensus and measured by excellence in a highly competitive environment where anyone can develop something better tomorrow.

    The legal ecosystem is oriented in precisely the opposite direction. Most people do not choose to be subject to a law; the law is imposed upon them by force. Instead of competing for the approval of many “users” who have many options to choose from, laws are written and decided upon by a tiny minority. This minority does not desire transparency or communal input; their goal is retaining power, and for them it is not useful for people to know who slips in the changes to add this earmark for their district or that no-bid contract for their supporters.

    Are we going to have a legal system that allows people to simply opt out of taxes when they don’t approve of the way the money is spent? Are we going to have a legal system where the “users” can simply pick and choose which laws to follow, and fork the legal code when it doesn’t suit them? Governments, even democracies and republics, simply do not work that way, and won’t *ever* work that way, because government is literally defined by being involuntary. There’s only one way a society could work in the way Shirky envisions, and that’s if government itself is removed and supplanted with voluntary organizations.

    1. Matt Drew, 
      I must heartily disagree with the assumptions within your argument. Whereas you see Government forced on the population, I contend that the instances of governments forcibly obstruct citizens from leaving the area of the Government’s aegis are no where near a majority, especially not in countries where the introspective and conscious democratization of governments are in in effect, such as most first world countries.That a citizen cannot instantly put their choice to no longer take part in a country into effect and leave it’s aegis is a product of limited technology, not a conspiracy.

      Furthermore, I find the idea that citizen’s would opt out of paying taxes in accordance with their personal agreement with the law, without first renouncing their citizenship, is untenable. This is because of a number of factors. First, the regular yet unpredictable instances of this being done would cause the budget of the government to fluctuate too wildly to make concrete long term plans in the payment of government services and staff. The inability to create long term plans would negatively affect the reliability of the Government’s functions, including the ability to provide employment for the staff needed to carry out these functions. The government should provide reliable service and have sufficient quantity and quality of staff to provide those services. Secondly, many of the services provided by the government are universal in nature, such as defense  law enforcement, and infrastructure, While this is often argued, the benefit that social services provide to the whole of the citizenry is also often calculable and tactile. A citizen would still benefit form these services, no matter if the citizen did not wish to. I do not believe it would be possible to quantify the percentage of government services have universal benefits without extreme difficulty, which would make creating a cap on the taxes that could be forfeited similarly difficult.

      I believe that both of these ideas are built on the perception that the government and people are in opposite forces, or competing in some way for finite ephemeral power. If I could suggest a different philosophy; I believe that the government and the people are one thing, difficult to divide when democratic, yet impossible to divide no matter how tyrannical. The government is an expression of the people’s tolerance and desires both. Even a slave can lay down their life in defense of their freedom, and slavery is a simple and tangible thing, which I do not believe the majority of citizens to be, even within so small a group as those residing in first world, democratic countries. we are interconnected and matryoshka – like communities of people. Everyone, save those who find some unclaimed land, and subsist truly independently, exists as part of a community. The governments we live under are our communal responsibilities, they are the product of our actions communal, they are us, communally. 
      – Helios

  2. I always love to hear, see, and read Shirky, but his rendering of the history of how Linus came upon Git is way off. I too think distributed version control is extraordinary beyond geeks (I’m the first person to put a free course on github), but Linus didn’t study the community and come up with Git, the Linux community was tearing itself apart from ideological battles over their (and Linus’) use of the proprietary BitKeeper, which already broke the ground. So Git was a free/open rip-off of a proprietary product that eventually eclipsed its progenitor. Also, Git != Github, as my recollection is that Linus himself isn’t so fond of github.

    1.  it’s understandable, github is like doing a bunch of work to remove the need for a central command only to then go and put in a central command, its like the people leading a rebellion to overthrow a warlord only to put a dictator in his place.

  3. The lack of comments on this is profoundly disappointing.

    I guess I could crap on at length, but instead I’ll just condense what I have to say into a single sentiment:


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