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Here Comes Everybody – Three Categories Of Loss

May 17, 2012

One in a series of posts about Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations.

As Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations, “it’s not a revolution if nobody loses”.  What Shirky calls the new social tools (e.g., Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Meetup, blogs, smartphones) vastly expand what the US Constitution’s first amendment calls “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”…but not without costs.

The first category of loss Shirky identifies is “people whose jobs relied on solving a formerly hard problem”.  It used to be harder and more expensive to publish writing of all kinds (journalism, poetry, fiction, etc.).  So, for example, everyone whose job relied on the printing of Time magazine (writers, photographers and editors, but also paper millworkers, delivery truck drivers, newsstand operators) is threatened with the loss of their job by the internet.

Shirky moves quickly over this point, asserting that “the loss from this kind of change is real but limited and is accompanied by a generally beneficial social change.”  However, it seems to me that as the cost of computing power continues to drop, an ever-increasing number of jobs are threatened.  (For example, the growth of the legal field in the US has basically come to a halt in recent years.  One reason is that big law firms can now use computers to do much of the research that young associates used to do.)

The second category of loss “will damage current social bargains”.   Shirky’s example here is the relationship between the media and the state.  As long as the entry costs to joining the media (buying a printing press, or a radio station, or a television broadcasting studio) were relatively high, the state and the media had a more-or-less agreed upon set of laws and customs (which varied from country to country) for their relationship.  Now that demonstrators can tweet the progress of a rally, or upload video from their cellphones, it’s unclear what the line is between “media” and “citizens”, and it remains unclear what new social bargains will replace the old ones.

The third, and for Shirky the most troublesome, category of loss is the increased resilience of networked organizations (easy to form, hard to destroy) and “the negative effects of freedom”.  The same social tools that make it easier for pro-democracy activists to organize also make it easier for, say, terrorist networks or criminal gangs to organize and communicate.  The new social tools also make it easier for groups that most people disagree with (Shirky’s example is “Pro-Ana” support groups—anorexia support groups for girls and young women who view anorexia as a positive “lifestyle choice”) to organize, communicate, and sustain themselves despite widespread opposition.

In conclusion, Shirky provocatively suggests (but does not further develop) the hypothesis that “(t)his is going to force society to shift from simply preventing groups from forming to actively deciding which existing ones to try to oppose, a shift that parallels the publish-then-filter pattern generally.”


From → Books, Politics

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