The Best Paragraph I Read Today

From Clay Shirky, one of the more eloquent commentators on the increasingly participatory nature of the internet:

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.

Also try his speech on Gin, Television, and Social Surplus — this is where he compared time spent watching TV with time spent building wikipedia.

7 Responses to The Best Paragraph I Read Today

  1. Krishna says:

    Many a shy, unsung experts are unmasked by the digital world that discards the caustic prejudices and judgmental impetus of the physical world. These are curmudgeons that don’t run after labels and are content with absorbing wisdom than in its declaration to the world at large, unless wildly provoked by BS tolerance tests – refutable content that come shrink wrapped as `expert opinions’. The ubiquity and possibility of instant online rebuttal has a positive fallout in that it tempers the early, impulsive tendencies to parade one’s unverified claims to mastery.

    The `precipitous decline’ of the `expertise advantage’ could be also because of the inescapability of that punishment – if not its severity, I guess;)

  2. Krishna says:

    Oops…sorry, hurried despatch…Please correct my comment to begin with the words “Many a shy, unsung expert has been….”

  3. Reading Shirky’s Gin, Television, and Social Surplus convinced me that he’s either insane or was suffering a cognitive dissonance moment.

    He says, without a trace of irony, that the television show Desperate Housewives “essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.”

    When Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show in January 1953 it might have had a suppressive effect on the incidence of coitus in the US that night– 44 million people watched it out of a population of 160 million.

    At its peak viewership in the 2004-2005 season, Desperate Housewives had an average audience of 23.7 viewers out of a US population of 294 million.

    Whatever the hell it would mean if society ‘overheated’ (that almost made me spew my coffee), fewer than 1 in 12 people here ever watched the show at one time. Some ‘heat’ sink. It sounds more like it had all the heat absorbing capacity of a bathtub of lukewarm gin.

    Did someone pour Everclear into Shirky’s coffee, or did he have a fever?

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Vince, I’m not sure what that criticism has to do with the larger point, which is that up until very recently TV has been a place where we spend a lot of time “wasting” time and energy. Now, the web has enabled millions of people to spend that energy doing something arguably more productive — like build Wikipedia.

  5. Ben, I get Shirky’s larger point about the cognitive ‘surplus’ and how we apportion our time. I agree with most of what he said in this speech. He did talk, though, about the skepticism of the TV producer who interviewed him.

    I find her skepticism understandable when Shirky tosses out-of-left-field non sequiturs like “…who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island…”

    Excuse me, but I think that’s funny. The trauma? And he speaks in the present tense– so melodramatic. He doesn’t have to ‘unlearn’ anything. If he wasted that time in the first place, why waste it all over again by giving something he should have been done with decades ago even more time and energy now?

    Shirky really did snap when he told the doubting producer,”No one who works in TV gets to ask that question.”

    It’s absurd and contradicts his statement that “The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively…”

    Well, he failed to make the best use of his time many years ago, so why repeat the mistake, and why do it so spectacularly? Apparently he didn’t learn his lesson, and it makes me, like the producer, wonder why we should waste our time listening to him talk about it.

  6. Maybe he was kidding about Desperate Housewives being a “cognitive heat sink” (I’ve had a few cups of coffee, myself), but he seems so serious about the rest of it.

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