On The Radio

Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, was on The Brian Lehrer Show today on WNYC. Shirky mentioned Liss and Shakesville (as well as Sady Doyle and Tiger Beatdown). It was a pretty nice shout-out, not only to Liss, but the community as a whole.

Anyway, the show is available here, if you want to download and/or give it a listen.

(Transcript after the jump.)

SHIRKY: Nick's...what -- what Nick [Carr in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"] is saying about the individual human mind is I think the piece of that book we need to deal with. What he -- where he and I, I think, might disagree, is that I have great faith in humankind's ability to create social structures that take the possibilities of new media, and make them civically valuable, not just endlessly distracting.


LEHRER: But you -- historically, to go back to the Gutenberg, you know, the dawn of the printing press, analogy, you said widespread literary education was the necessary response to the huge in-- huge increase in essentially bad information that, you know, the mass medium of books, uh, was starting to spread around the culture, centuries ago. What's the equivalent cultural response today?

SHIRKY: Well, there are a couple-- there are a couple of cultural responses. Uh...one of them, you know, one of th-- one of the things that people don't realize about the rise of the print revolution, is it wasn't until after print became abundant that we started separating fiction from nonfiction. That wasn't a division that existed until there were so many stories that people could start sorting that-- out that idea. So one of the things we need to teach kids to do is to understand something about the context in which work is produced. So, here is a blog by an individual on a particular topic, uh, and...are there any signs that that person is knowledgeable about that topic? If so, you can take that at--you know, as, as some kind of evidence. If not, you, you just, you-- you, you pay less attention to that person's opinion, until you see it corroborated. And so, in a way, we have switched, right, the, the-- there's always been this great tension between, you know, Socratic and Platonic ideas of authority, right? And Socrates is, "get the smart people together and get them to keep talking." Plato had a more, sort of, "we can identify the authorities and put them in charge," right, no poets in the land of the Republic. We're all moving to Socratic norms, now. Which is to say, we're all moving to a position where we're like the editors of peer-reviewed journals, we have to assess things probabilistcally. Instead of saying, "this person is an authority, that person is not, I am only listening to A," now we're really having to say, on the balance, "you know, this is a strange story I just read, but I've seen it-- I've seen it written about three, from uncoordinated sources, so I'm gonna start to take it seriously. And what, what [previous caller] Jim said is, you know, the, the first thing we have to do is to educate children that not -- and in fact educate everyone, educate ourselves, that not all pieces of information are created equal. And after that the social problem becomes: how do we teach people to get that kind of probability signature for the value of information, rather than "this is an authority, that is not an authority."

LEHRER: I see this show in that context, that, since we started before the internet, it used to be much more experts, with certifiable knowledge, coming on to impart that knowledge to a receptive audience. Over time, it has become much more of a hybrid of the wisdom of the crowd, if you will, interacting with the wisdom of experts, not competing with it, necessarily, but interacting with it--


LEHRER: --And the, kind of, fact-checking process, and larger peer-review process, goes in all directions now.

SHIRKY: Right. No no, that's, tha-- and I think the ability of surprising voices to be surfaced is one of the great and profound advantages of this medium. My-- my friend Naomi Wolf, many years ago, wrote a book called The Beauty Myth, uh, and, and--

LEHRER: And she was here to talk about it, at the time!

SHIRKY: Oh, (unintelligible) well, yes! So, in, in that book, she looked at the role of women's magazines, as a potential place where women could have a conversation with one another, unshaped by larger social forces. And the way that women's magainzes almost completely failed to live up to that possibility, because of the demands of cosmetics companies for "beauty-friendly copy." And so the possibility of discussing real and deep issues of sexism was driven from the one place that, that provided this public conversation. Now, when you look at Melissa McEwan on Shakespeare's Sis-- on Shakesville, or Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown, who's my favorite-- favorite blogger, uh, they are doing what Naomi imagined. They have a public space to not just say what they think, but to convene a conversation among their commenters, without having to go, hat in hand, to the cosmetics company, and have beauty-friendly copy. They can finally have the discussion out in the open.

[Thanks to Scott Madin for the transcript and DW for letting us know.]

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