Clay Shirky defends the Internet

On the Encyclopedia Britannica's blog, Clay Shirky is debating techno-skeptic Michael Gorman. Gorman's hypothesis is that the net is to blame for quack medicine, Biblical literalism, and other evils that come from valuing individual participation over credentials and training.

This has become a motif among net-critics, whose vanguard is Andrew Keen, who wrote a sloppy, intellectually dishonest book called The Cult of the Amateur that damns the Internet for much the same reasons (Clay Shirky wrote a great response to Keen). Shirky has made a little cottage industry out of taking these people apart, writing articulate, snappy essays debunking their claims and explaining the real way that the net and expertise interact. This is highly recommended reading.

These two theories cannot both be true, so it's odd to find them side by side, but Gorman does not seem to be comfortable with either of them as a general case. This leads to a certain schizophrenic quality to the writing. We're told that print does not necessarily bestow authenticity and that some digital material does, but we're also told that he consulted "authoritative printed sources" on Goya. If authenticity is an option for both printed and digital material, why does printedness matter? Would the same words on the screen be less scholarly somehow?

Gorman is adopting a historically contingent view: Revolution then was good, revolution now is bad. As a result, according to Gorman, the shift to digital and networked reproduction of information will fail unless it recapitulates the institutions and habits that have grown up around print.

Gorman's theory about print – its capabilities ushered in an age very different from manuscript culture – is correct, and the same kind of shift is at work today. As with the transition from manuscripts to print, the new technologies offer virtues that did not previously exist, but are now an assumed and permanent part of our intellectual environment. When reproduction, distribution, and findability were all hard, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed specialists to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated them for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have instead become obstacles to direct access.

Digital and networked production vastly increase three kinds of freedom: freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. This perforce increases the freedom of anyone to say anything at any time. This freedom has led to an explosion in novel content, much of it mediocre, but freedom is like that. Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline. Experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect – the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.

All posts, "Old Revolutions, Good; New Revolutions, Bad", The Siren Song of Luddism