An Accelerated Grimace: On Cyber-Utopianism
Gather round, netizens, for Clay Shirky has a story to tell. It’s a simple yet stirring saga of self-organization online, and an extension of the paean to the spontaneous formation of digital groups he delivered three years ago in his breakout book, Here Comes Everybody. But where Shirky’s earlier tract focused principally on the potential organizing power of the digital world, Cognitive Surplus asserts that the great Net social revolution has already arrived. The story goes likes this: once upon a time, we used to watch a lot of television, to spend down the new leisure we acquired during the automated postwar era, and to adjust to the vaguely defined social ills associated with atomized suburban life. That was a one-way channel of passive consumption, and it was bad.
Now, however, we have the World Wide Web, which has leveraged our free time into an enormous potential resource. This is very, very good. With the emergence of Web 2.0–style social media (things like Facebook, Twitter and text messaging), Shirky writes, we inhabit an unprecedented social reality, “a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.” This Valhalla of voluntary intellectual labor represents a stupendous crowdsourcing, or pooling, of the planet’s mental resources, hence the idea of the “cognitive surplus.” Citing one of the signature crowdsourced reference works on the Web, Shirky contends that
People who ask “Where do they find the time?” about those who work on Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, relative to the aggregate free time we all possess. One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.
For Shirky, producers and consumers of digital culture are mashed up into a vast, experimental quest to test the reaches of knowledge and social utility. Does it make for a cacophony of rival monologuing voices and a rapidly expanding market for rumor, pseudo-information and unrewarded intellectual work? Yes—and so much the better! Shirky cheers—for this new Internet is not stifled by old-media publishing standards and elitist gatekeepers. Shirky asks us to consider bloggy self-publishing, which is upending the decaying one-sender-to-many-receivers model of publication: “The ability for community members to speak to one another, out loud and in public, is a huge shift,” he writes, “and one that has value even in the absence of a way to filter for quality. It has value, indeed, because there is no way to filter for quality in advance: the definition of quality becomes more variable, from one community to the next, than when there was broad consensus about mainstream writing (and music, and film, and so on).”
It’s reasonable to ask if this sort of discursive world is one any sane citizen would choose to live in. Democratic culture—indeed, cultural activity of any kind—thrives on establishing standards and drawing distinctions; they furnish the elemental terms of debate for other equally crucial distinctions in civic life, beginning with the demarcation of the public and private spheres that Shirky announces the web has transformed into a dead letter.
By contrast, to hail a cascade of unrefereed digital content as a breakthrough in creativity and critical thought is roughly akin to greeting news of a massive national egg recall by laying off the country’s food inspectors. This contradiction should be obvious in an age where the best-known persecutor of the media mainstream—excuse me, lamestream—is one Sarah Palin, who has also cannily harnessed the social media revolution to a classic one-to-many political broadcasting concern. (One might also gingerly suggest that Shirky’s own blogging output could have benefited from a healthy dose of filtration, given the sexist character of his now notorious, if forthrightly titled, blog offering “A Rant About Women.”)
The invocation, and ritual immolation, of straw-man claims gleefully culled from the venerable storehouse of old-media cliché is standard fare in digital evangelizing tracts such as Cognitive Surplus. On one level, Shirky’s new book is just the latest, monotonous installment in the sturdy tradition of exuberant web yay-saying, from the overheated ’90s boom reveries of George Gilder (Telecosm) and Jon Katz (Virtuous Reality) to the more ambitious, but no less empirically challenged, late-aughts divinations of Wired magazine digiterati such as Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, Free). It’s more than a little disorienting—and not a little obscene—in a society of increasingly desperate financial distress and joblessness, to be marched one more time by a beaming missionary through the key points of the New Economy catechism, which holds that the social achievements of the web are remaking the world as we know it remorselessly for the better, abolishing all the old distinctions not merely of intellectual and cultural quality but also of social class, national identity, government regulation and the fabric of public and private life itself. Shopworn as this vision is, there’s no doubt that Shirky has continued plying it to great professional effect: he recently scored a full professorship at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and boasts a long résumé of consulting gigs, including Nokia, News Corp., Procter & Gamble, the BBC, the US Navy and Lego.
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On another level, though, Shirky’s new book is more than corporate-visionary hackwork. What’s striking is how Shirky pursues the utopian drift of the cottage industry in web apologetics to its logical conclusions—beginning with the collective time evoked in his book’s title. He estimates that this pooled global cache of time capital is a “buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population.” Obviously, plenty of free time goes into all kinds of endeavors—from producing execrable reality television to composing crowdsourced fan fiction. To assign it all an aggregate value of potential hours of creative and generous activity is about as meaningful as computing one’s velocity on a bicycle as a fraction of the speed of light: it tells us nothing about either the public value or the opportunity cost of any given web-based activity.
Why assign any special value to an hour spent online in the first place? Given the proven models of revenue on the web, it’s reasonable to assume that a good chunk of those trillion-plus online hours are devoted to gambling and downloading porn. Yes, the networked web world does produce some appreciable social goods, such as the YouTubed “It Gets Better” appeals to bullied gay teens contemplating suicide. But there’s nothing innate in the character of digital communication that favors feats of compassion and creativity; for every “It Gets Better” video that goes viral, there’s an equally robust traffic in white nationalist, birther and jihadist content online. A “cognitive surplus” has meaning only if one can ensure a baseline value to all that dreary inconvenient time we “while away” in our individual lives, and establishing that baseline is inherently a political question, one that might be better phrased as either “Surplus for what?” or “Whose surplus, white man?”
Shirky’s approach to contested public values and political organization is another example of acute web myopia. To be fair, he does recap the story of a group of activists fighting Hindu-fundamentalist attacks on women who patronize bars in the Indian city of Mangalore, who united under the banner of a Facebook group called the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women. But on the negative side of the ledger, the most baleful use of web-enabled resources he seems able to imagine is Lolcats, the signature cute-pets-with-captions of the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” franchise, which he adopts as a stand-in for “the stupidest possible creative act” perpetrated on the web, with nary a whisper about faked Obama birth certificates or the James O’Keefe YouTube videos. (O’Keefe, you may recall, produced a series of videos in which he and an associate posed as a pimp and hooker seeking legal advice at ACORN offices; using extremely selective and misleading video editing, O’Keefe made ACORN employees appear to be colluding in their scheme to evade the law.) For a man who spends his career explaining how the web works, Shirky doesn’t seem to spend much time exploring the thing.
While Shirky clearly supports the formation of the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women (it was, he notes, partially inspired by Here Comes Everybody), he cautions that such exercises in “civic intervention” are rarities, even in the hypernetworked precincts of Web 2.0. Though “it’s tempting to imagine a broad conversation about what we as a society should do with the possibilities and virtues of participation” online, Shirky claims that “such a conversation will never happen.” The reason? “If you do a Web search for ‘we as a society,’ you will find a litany of failed causes, because society isn’t the kind of unit that can have conversations, come to decisions, and take action…. It’s from groups trying new things that the most profound uses of social media have hitherto come and will come in the future.”
There you have it: the idea of public cooperation, if not social solidarity, rendered nugatory by a web search. (One can’t help wondering whether Shirky would be equally cavalier about a search using the term “We the People,” which I seem to recall has lodged a rather important model of public cooperation in the American civitas.) Shirky’s conclusion—intended to champion the dynamism of small-group models of web activism—is, in reality, redolent of Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, “There is no such thing as society.” The idea of society as a terminally unresponsive, nonconversant entity would certainly be news to the generations of labor and gender-equality advocates who persistently engaged the social order with demands for the ballot and the eight-hour workday. It would likewise ring strangely in the ears of the leaders of the civil rights movement, who used a concerted strategy of nonviolent protest as a means of addressing an abundance-obsessed white American public who couldn’t find the time to regard racial inequality as a pressing social concern. The explicit content of such protests, meanwhile, indicted that same white American public on the basis of the civic and political standards—or rather double standards—of equality and opportunity that fueled the nation’s chauvinist self-regard.