Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Oct 08 - Express yourself

As a teenager I was one of the first kids to be allowed to use a calculator at school. I remember my Dad grumbling on and on about how he knew all his times tables by the time he started school. And how our generation had it all so easy.

These days calculators are commonplace. I have one built in to my computer, a scientific one in my iPhone and I also have one gathering dust in my desk drawer. That’s not to say the calculator is not a useful tool, it’s just that we take their existence for granted.

Clay Shirky touches on the idea of ubiquitousness in his book, Here Comes Everybody. His primary focus however is not the calculator, but the internet, and its ability to give everyone, well everyone with access to a computer anyway, a voice.

A professor at NYU, Shirky has consulted on the social and economic effects of the internet for the likes of Nokia, Proctor & Gamble, News Corp. the BBC and Lego. He’s also an in demand public speaker and a couple of months ago gave a talk in London, which was documented by Russell Davies on his blog.

In the eyes of Davies, Clay Shirky said something he believes we all need to hear. “The most profound thing that's happened with all this internet and media stuff is this; fifteen or twenty years ago, if you'd wanted to say something in public, to the world at large, you couldn't. You just couldn't do it.”

Since I read Russell’s post I’ve been wracking my brain trying to dispute this argument, but to no avail. The only thing I could think of was writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper. But even then there’s no guarantee that your opinion will appear or that it will appear unedited.

Says Shirky, “You always had to get access to someone else's media machine. You had to persuade your way or buy your way into the public discourse. You could write a letter to the paper, publish a pamphlet, make a sandwich board, do all manner of things but expressing a personal voice in public was an expensive and difficult thing.”

The primary difference between then and now obviously, is that you can get your voice heard on your own terms. And you can do it with relative ease. Not only that, but if you do it well, you can get other like minded people to join with you. “That,” says Shirky, “is a big change.”

A change so big, it prompted Russell Davies to pose these questions; “When everyone has a voice what are editorial columns for? How might they change? How should news change?”

I don’t know the answers, but I’d hazard a guess that some very highly paid people are currently locked away in the boardrooms of our major newspaper publishers wrestling with these very questions.

Of course academics and members of the Fourth Estate will argue that the independent voices expressing themselves on blogs and other internet empowered social media tools are not trusted sources of news and information. In 2008 this argument seems to be holding less and less weight.

The publishing power of internet and its impact on traditional media was covered beautifully by Clay Shirky in a recent post he wrote for the Penguin Books blog;

“Imagine a technology that, from its inception, threatens to throw intellectual society into chaos, a technology that radically democratises both production and consumption of media while creating countless new forms of expression.”

He didn’t stop there.
“Now imagine,” wrote Shirky, “that while some of the new material produced is of lasting value, most is evanescent at best, and that the resulting flood of material weakens traditional institutions, eroding their special place in society by making the functions they provide seem irrelevant to young people.”
As I sit typing this I can hear the sound of ‘hear hear’ resounding around many a hallowed hall. Thing is, Shirky wasn’t actually writing about the internet. He was highlighting, “The most intellectually radical technology the world has ever seen: the printing press.”

As a generation raised on the internet as their primary media and publishing source begins to make its way into our academic institutions and the workforce how will we cope with them?

Forget spending in time in the library. These are children of a different revolution. Are you ready for them?


Clay Shirky

Russell Davies

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