Different is different – Here Comes Everybody

In "Here Comes Everybody," Clay Shirky descbribes effects of the Internet on society's ability to forms groups and produce content like Wikipedia.

The further I get into “Here Comes Everybody,” and the more I think about its usefulness, the more I think Clay Shirky is very deftly staying away from a call to action. To this point (ch. 9), I read him to be largely observational, at least in his conceptual ideas. He is laying out a theoretical framework about the effect of changes in information accessibility, not arguing for any sort of organized reaction from humanity to that.

One question I asked earlier this week (that was really more of a note to myself to check a dictionary) was surprisingly fitting: “What is media determinism?” I looked it up. Simply put, it’s the theory that changes in media effect society. Perfect. That is exactly what I read Shirky to be addressing–and not much beyond that.

Well, one thing beyond that is leaving readers with a feeling of awe. He certainly includes a lot of compelling anecdotes that are meant to leave such an impression and at the very least, give readers room to form their own opinions about what the changes brought about by the Internet have done to our functionality as a society, but so far each chapter is like another swing from the hammer to nail in this basic premise that, yes, media has an effect on society.

“More is different.”
“Less is different.”
“Faster is different.”
Differences make a difference, apparently.

When I get to the end of sentences like that I’m not sure I’ve actually made any progress in my ability to apply this understanding. Are things better, worse, or just different? And that’s a point that worked well with another question I posed: “Are we really ‘so good’ at group work now that these ‘barriers’ have come down? Or are there simply new barriers in place that shift the capabilities of groups?”

I think Shirky’s best attempt to answer that so far was this:

“Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.”

This offers a small suggestion that society is left changed by media in a good way–‘revolution’ usually implies ‘good.’ Very quickly he also adds that revolutions must have losers. He spends a good deal of time and anecdotally demonstrating that even if we’re good at working as a group, there will also be losses to society as a result. Again I’m left with his proof of change that makes me feel as if nothing has really been changed. It’s just different.

I sense I’m being slightly unfair. I haven’t been left unchanged by this book and the way it allows me to understand what the Internet offers for any groups I may like to organize in the future. While Shirky chooses again and again to stop short of making a suggestion for a proper response to that knowledge, I think his point is certainly more sound for the inclusion of all the social dilemmas. Whereas I often felt McGonigal was skimming or ignoring the negative aspects of gaming, Shirky doesn’t dodge the point. And honestly, it’s often best to let people react as they choose–rather than tell them how to think.

Unfortunately the sterility of his balanced demonstration of the way we function as humans both good and bad, terrorists and philanthropists, Pro-Anas and Xena fanatics, leaves me feeling a bit hollow.

Which makes me want to ask new (more existential) questions: What good does it do us to examine how we’ve responded to the barriers coming down for group formations? We know good will happen, we know bad will happen, too. We know another round of unknowns is also coming. What do we do about it? Anything?

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