In Defense of Clay Shirky
Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus relies on the argument I hear a lot in privacy circles: Bad things could happen.
Shirky imagines what good things people could do if they watched less TV and created more stuff together (2,000 Wikipedias bloom). Manjoo yes-buts him:
Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive; everyone here seems to be using the Internet to do such good things.Yet it seems obvious that not everything – and perhaps not even most things – that we produce together online will be as heartwarming as a charity or as valuable as Wikipedia. Other examples of Internet-abetted collaborative endeavors include the “birthers,” Chinese hacker collectives and the worldwide jihadi movement. In this way a “cognitive surplus” is much like a budgetary surplus – having one doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll spend it well. You could give up your time at the TV to do good things or bad; most likely you’ll do both.
Well, yes, Shirky’s examples are of good things because he’s trying to persuade people to consider new behaviors and thus he is arguing their benefits. Buy the punch line, buy the joke. In Manjoo’s school, Jim Fixx should have written running books leading off by arguing that it could give you skin cancer to be outside that much and it will wreck your knees and cars could hit you and dogs could bite you and you look silly in shorts and, oh, yes, you could drop dead of a heart attack. Feel like a run? C’mon! Get up off that couch! Turn off that TV, now!
As he tries to find his critical yes-but, Manjoo is betraying more about his thinking than Shirky’s. His is a case of classical (if you’ll forgive me that but it’s become a cliché if not classical) internet skepticism, which is really anti-populist fear of a loss of centralized control. Manjoo doesn’t trust people – “perhaps even most” people – to use their time wisely. That’s the snobbery I hear against the internet and publicness and what the public does with the internet.
So the next necessary question to such a critic needs to be: Yeah, and…? What is it you expect we should do then? The only logical answer in this context is that Manjoo wants people to keep watching TV in case they would otherwise do bad things (and he gets to define bad). So whether he knows it or not, he becomes Big Brother and TV is the opiate of his masses. Put down that remote control, now. Back away from the mouse. Just sit and watch media. That’s what it’s there for. Hush now.
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