Some interesting reading this morning, mostly by Clay Shirky. First is a review of The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture. It's less a review than Shirky's account of being on a panel discussion about the book. The book is a screed against the Internet and the freedoms and efficiencies it brings.
Shirky points out, as others have, that the Internet presents a fantastic improvement in the ability of people to freely speak, publish, and associate. This does two things. First, it enables people that we didn't necessarily want to speak, publish, or associate to do those things, like racists and pro-anorexia teenage girls. The Internet allows these people to find each other and distribute their ideology with few limitations. But if we actually care about freedom as such, this should be viewed as a necessary result of expanding freedom, not a reason for censorship. Second, it puts people who made money from inefficiences out of business. Just like medieval scribes were unemployed after the advent of moveable type, the Internet is threatening to unemploy people who made their living from publishing. It's just no longer necessary, and to the extent that it is, it's a commodity, not a premium service. The fact that culture is changing does not mean that it's being destroyed. Culture's change. It's what they do.
On that note are two essays written by Shirky in response to the paranoid neo-Luddite currently publishing the Encyclopedia Brittanica, entitled "'Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad'" and "The Siren Song of Luddism". In both he points out the inherent inconsistencies in arguments advanced by old media executives in a vain attempt to maintain their position as well-paid information gatekeepers. The invention of moveable type put scribes out of business. The Industrial Revolution put medieval weavers out of business. The railroads put canal owners out of business. And the Internet is putting publishers out of business. What they're selling is simply no longer valuable in that form. And yeah, paper really is terrible for storing information that is referenced but not actually read. There's no reason to pull out a fifteen pound dictionary and spend two minutes looking up the definition of a word when I can do exactly the same thing in three dictionaries in about ten seconds with electronic media. Ten minute research tasks take one minute online.
Then, on a related website, comes "The Bayesian Advantage of Youth" in which the author describes the advantage that people born after the invention of the PC have over people born before it. Which came first, the PC or the VCR? For people born in the 1980s, the answer is "Neither", because both were introduced either before we were born or before we were old enough to care. But for someone born in the 1970s or earlier, the answer is "the VCR", and thus because that technology was adopted first, it is instinctively viewed as more reliable and ordinary than these newfangled digital storage media. Money quote:
"IBM learned, from decades of experience, that competitive advantage lay in the hardware; Bill Gates had never had those experiences, and didnít have to unlearn them. Jerry and David at Yahoo learned, after a few short years, that search was a commodity. Sergey and Larry never knew that. Mark Cuban learned that the infrastructure required for online video made the economics of web video look a lot like TV. That memo was never circulated at YouTube."
I'm hoping to get involved with the myriad legal issues this raises as dinosaurs are replaced by mammals in the information world. Though a lot of the technological change has already happened--and it's impossible to predict what changes are still in store, though I personally think the period of fastest technological change may be behind us--the social and legal implications of this are only now starting to become clear. And as legal institutions change only but slowly, there should be enough work to do to make a career or three.
Now if only I can land a job with such a firm...Posted by ryan at June 21, 2007 9:33 AM