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May 10, 2002

Response to Clay Shirky: 2 Systems for Creating Value

Clay is a dude I've come to appreciate, if not always agree with. Was on a listserv he posted on frequently a while back, and usually perked up to listen on his posts, though he doesn't know me from Adam or Eve.

He's got the start of the main issue here in this article, and even the beginning of the second half of it. Will he get the whole banana? Let's see.

"Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing" [Daypop Top 40] First published on October 3, on the 'Networks, Economics, and Culture' mailing list .

By Clay Shirky


This destruction of value is what makes weblogs so important. We want a world where global publishing is effortless. We want a world where you don't have to ask for help or permission to write out loud. However, when we get that world we face the paradox of oxygen and gold. Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price. Prior to the web, people paid for most of the words they read. Now, for a large and growing number of us, most of the words we read cost us nothing.

This article is a good wake-up call for bloggers who are more clueless, you know, like Andrew Sullivan or something [g]. I must take issue with the statement that the destruction of value is what makes weblogs so important. I mean, yes, I agree wholeheartedly, except for the definition of terms. I've written in the House of Bite Me about this same destruction of value as it hit me as a photographer in the late 1980s, early 1990s with royalty-free stock photo CDS ("McLuhan Would Be Proud: Porting Our Brains to Hardware").

But see, Shirky calls it "this destruction of value," as if that destruction of value is the only kind of value there is, as if scarcity and borders and gates are the only way to create value. But I know Shirky knows better, because he shows it even in the very next sentence about oxygen vs. gold.

Here's the way I would put it: There are two systems of value that operate in this world that I can analyze right now (there are undoubtedly more than two, but two will do for the big kahunas). Some people only see one system of value, the scarcity model, the creation of borders, gates, gatekeepers. Eliot Freidson writes about this model in Professional Powers, a book about how disciplines and professions, guilds, etc were created. A REALLY good book for wonky types--I highly recommend it.

Borders and Gates

Gatekeeper/scarcity model of value is the model of elites and elitism. It is the model of banks creating value with money by keeping it in vaults. It is the model of elite MIT programming classes holding lofty knowledge and favors inside its gatekeeping system (I mouthed off about that in "Education goes open source").

It is the religion of high priests who go to god or to the powerful on your behalf, through the gate into the Holy of Holies, or if not high priests, then journalists who think they are high priests going to the powerbrokers and representing the masses, but eventually becoming corrupted by the power of gates and elites, resulting in a new high priest class (ombudsmen, blogs) to be drafted to represent the masses, the journalists having grown too fond of Insider Baseball.

Yup, for a lot of folks, this is the only system of value they know. But even bankers know better, no matter what they would like you to think. The scarcity model (and supply and demand system of economics) is only good for so much. Hoarding to create value has numerous pitfalls.

One, people learn to do without the thing being hoarded, and so your collection of baseball cards in a world batshit over soccer can be hoarded until the cows come home with no value. Two, it is dependent on centralized (and often authoritarian) systems of command and control, systems that can be efficient, but also vulnerable--in the way that Fort Knox is vulnerable. One good hit takes the whole thing out.

One of the reasons I do love Foucault so much is that the dude just sat around and thought about what makes power, all the time. I can't begin to get to where he was, and he made a goodly bit of mud out of it anyway, but he at least opened a door for me. But I can't help it. I obsess on radical democracy theory ("Color Me Intrigued: Practical democracy for the 21st century"
), which is not really that trendy and the literature is a bit thin (if you leave out Laclau and Mouffe, which I'd rather, you know?). Damn.

But let's lay it out in broad strokes instead, maybe leaving me hanging around with dabblers like my hero Tom Stoppard ("'A thinking man's Merry Prankster pulling out all the intellectual stops'").

Bankers know money only really gets its value if it circulates--a move in direct opposition to hoarding. Clay Shirky knows the same thing about oxygen. Power is dispersed this way, but in a completely different system of value, a distributed system.

Distributed Systems and Democratic Structures

Folks on the Internet, we are mostly high on distributed systems. I sure am. There are lots of different ways to think about them. One is Christmas Lights, where if one light goes out, the rest stay lit--a distributed, and some would argue (like Langdon Winner) a democratized system. The Internet, thanks to that rarely foresightful military-industrial complex, is also a distributed system, though a goodly number of folks would like to change that. Luckily, those first dudes built the politics of democracy into the deep structure interfaces of the Internet, which makes it pretty hard (but not impossible) to take out.

Turns out distributed systems make good military sense too, but don't tell that to straight centralized command and control authoritarian generals and such. It is no surprise that Osama bin Laden's network of terrorist cells is built on that very same Christmas Light structure as the Internet, despite the authoritarian nature of its controlling religion. Which goes to show you worldview isn't everything. An authoritarian religious terrorist system adopts a distributed structure for survival and effectiveness. A distributed communications network built for military robustness in the top world power is constantly being undermined or dismantled by an authoritarian military central command structure. Paradoxes. Go figure.

But let's go back to thinking about democratized power structures, and how they can become a force that wields real power even as they deconstruct the scarcity value system.

A famous example, overused perhaps, is nuclear power vs. solar power (I gotta own up. First told of this example in a seminar with Langdon Winner, and it is prominent is his book The Whale and the Reactor). Nuclear, being based on extreme security measures, requires central command and control systems. Control and scarcity are required and they are its very vulnerability. Solar power is a distributed system, just as we have seen above. One light goes out, the rest stay lit. Scarcity just cannot work within that system, yet value is created. How? Is it similar to the Open Source software movement, where the common as grass basic element becomes available to all, leaving room for new things that can operate within a scarcity model, and thus increasing the total set of things of value with the invention of genuinely NEW things? I believe Open Source folks would agree. It is part of how they sell Open Source to skeptics.

But the base power of a democratized of distributed system is in its deep structure interface and the social constructions around it. For this I gotta use another metaphor, and an oversimplified one, so I apologize.

If the most symbolic moment of democracy can be set up as the Storming of the Bastille (despite the fact that it was a jail and not the aristocratic bank vault), we may learn something about that most immediate democratic moment.

Two other obviously symbolic moments (which may be ahistorical) of democracy are:

The Gospels in the New Testament that claimed the curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple ripped in two the moment that Jesus died. That's the dead giveaway. Jesus was not advocating power within the elitist model. He was a great democratizer.

The other symbolic moment I think about a lot (as auspicious for oppression and persecution of dissent as was the eventual creation of the Catholic Church from Jesus's splitting that curtain) was Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg (sp?). Why? He was protesting the power of the high priests again--another moment of drafting a high priest from the masses to assault the elites--not just because the technology of the printing press, nearly contemporaneous, DISTRIBUTED a broadsheet of those 95 theses all over, all the way to Rome and Luther's excommunication, but also because that same technology led to Luther and others translating the text of the Holy of Holies from Latin. They ripped their own curtain.

So I like those symbolic "democratic" moments. They can be analyzed and their character examined. For instance, the Storming of the Bastille led to great excess and the guillotine. Why? Are excessive overcorrection and backlash part and parcel of the assertion of a democratized power model in the face of a dominant scarcity power model?

It gave me pause for a long time. I have a lot to fear from lynch mobs, after all. How could I champion democracy if I did not trust the mob? Just because I trusted elite power bases less?

To figure it out, I had to think about borders and gates and distributed systems and how they got their power. About when you need a high priest/intercessor and when you don't.

Permeable Borders and Swinging Gates

I think it is all-dependent on a kind of "Power Gulf" or trench or moat. How much of a fortress have the elites built around the valuable thing they are hoarding? How high are the standards to get in the gate?

Two other examples show this. One is the PC revolution and the other is the World Wide Web.

Mainframes. What can you say that is good about them? Power? Hell, they have the shittiest search systems I've ever seen. Programs can't talk with other programs. Crappy interfaces. I still don't know if there is a mainframe in existence that ever heard of User-Centered Design. PCs were weak, wimpy machines compared to mainframes, but personal computers came to show the mainframes how distributed systems create value. The more people who had these weak, wimpy-ass machines, the more their power, the power of small, came to blow away the hoarded power of the big.

They took the borders and gates around computing power, made the borders permeable, the gates easier to enter (note, the borders and gates still remain very much a force, esp. for people who never get past the blinking 12 problem). Along the way, programs got better. More things could be done on the machines. This created value, no matter how invisible this sort of thing is on a bottom line. Installed base. Raised consciousness.

The Web and HTML did the same thing, but in an even more powerful way. I speak mainly of authoring, although the effortless GUI entry for users leaves only one gate barring entry: economic, the computer terminal haves and have-nots.

But for authors, the simplicity of HTML distributed computing power beyond computer ownership. XML takes authoring back a bit into arcana, back to the monks in the scriptorium. But HTML is SO basic, so easy, we are still feeling its democratizing effects. And for that matter, the EditThisPage WYSIWYG web editing movement attempts to simplify for those to whom HTML is just another techie Black Box.

My point? Democratic (distributed) systems of power and elitist (hoarding) systems of power live in a larger social context. What you end up with depends on the larger social context.

If your hoarded systems have high stone walls and deep moats, and if the barriers for entry are so high as to be utterly prohibitive to the folks locked out on the outside, the only hope is revolution, Storming the Bastille, Barbaric Hordes, what have you. Off with their heads!

But, if your larger social context is more permeable, fluid, you can end up with greater gains and fewer repressive revolutions and harsh backlashings. Even if the mob inclines to form a posse and go after the deviant, you are more likely to trust the values and education of the mob to do the right thing and not act like Barbaric Hordes.

God god! This is fucking Reagan's rising tide that floats all boats, isn't it? Except Reagan was locked into bad economic theory from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman. He mistakenly thought the tide was rising when instead it was just the stone walls around the castle that were getting higher.

Neither the elitist/hoarding system of power nor the democratized/distributed/grassroots system of power will go away. They will always have to operate inside the same discursive spaces. What we can control or shape is the degree of polarization, the depth of the fucking moat around the elites, and the fluidity with which the masses can move in and through the various borders and gates.

This Thing Will Kill That Thing?

Shirky writes:

And then there's print. Right now, the people who have profited most from weblogs are the people who've written books about weblogging. As long as ink on paper enjoys advantages over the screen, and as long as the economics make it possible to get readers to pay, the webloggers will be a de facto farm team for the publishers of books and magazines.

But the vast majority of weblogs are amateur and will stay amateur, because a medium where someone can publish globally for no cost is ideal for those who do it for the love of the thing. Rather than spawning a million micro-publishing empires, weblogs are becoming a vast and diffuse cocktail party, where most address not "the masses" but a small circle of readers, usually friends and colleagues. This is mass amateurization, and it points to a world where participating in the conversation is its own reward.

A lot of theorists would decry Shirky's privileging print here, as if the online world is the farm team for the print world. Folks in the print world would like that model, no doubt, but it is old media and Shirky is blaspheming [g]. Did folks think of cars as good practice for the superior horse and buggy?

Old media would hold on to its value systems in the face of all other evidence that it is being squeezed out. On the other hand, I did hear a keynote conference presentation (Dale Spender, I believe, at the Computers and Writing Conference in 1994) where she suggested that one reason it has become so easy for women to suddenly get published in the once-male-dominated print publishing world was that men have finally moved on to electronic, so that print is like this abandoned continent. We all know that what ever men do is the important stuff, and women just do silly frivolous stuff.

Computers were like that once. Men saw them as glorified typewriters, women's work. Even in 1995, consulting at UNISYS, I ran into executives that still bragged that they didn't have a computer on their desks and had never been on the Internet (sounds like Time Warner Pathfinder execs still to this day [G]). On the other hand, consulting at Cisco was like night and day from UNISYS. Best intranet I've seen for 1997 at least. Women had to fight the boys to get the technology they needed.

Death to Professor Yellow-Note!
(figuratively, of course)

Or even consider the situation at most universities since the advent of laptop programs in the last 3-4 years. Previous to this time, although you wouldn't know it, computers were WIDELY used in the English classroom, but had no place in the massive science or math lectures, except at certain schools pioneering studio teaching in science and engineering. English teachers did research on computerized classrooms, room configuration, teaching methods, etc. They developed software tools to support their classes. Meanwhile, Important Professor Yellow-Note in the sciences saved all HIS important computer time for grad students number crunching on his military contracts and grants.

So time goes by and university administrators decide this laptop thing saves more money than building computer labs on campus. The bottom line was right, so huge grants for laptop teaching programs started appearing at schools all over the place. And whom did they give these multimillion-dollar grants to? Did they give them to computer teachers and scholars with 10 years experience designing rooms and developing teaching methods, all on itty bitty grants no bigger than $50,000 here and $10,000 there?

Oh noooo! They handed those multimillion-dollar grants straight to Professor Yellow-Note and his long-suffering grad students, who proceed to reinvent the wheel in his dysfunctional image, lecture and memorization, as if all those years of experience and scholarship with technology didn't exist.

And so they add laptop hookups to Professor Yellow-Note's mongo lecture sections. And he drones on and on like before. Courses are used as gatekeepers, to weed students out of their majors and throw the flunkouts to the humanities. No attention is given to pedagogy and learning because that would make the course too easy and thus the gate too easy to enter. Humanities teachers have to care about pedagogy (even if they didn't already) because they are left with flunkout dunderheads who need their hands held in everything from how to open a window to how to spell-check a file.

And even MORE ironically, some droning math professors figure out the kids are IM'ing during their boring lectures. So despite the DHCP wired and wireless lecture halls and multimillion-dollar laptop programs, they force the kids to shut down their machines in class. Instead these profs just use WebCT and Blackboard for memorization exams and grading, maybe punting up some of the yellow lecture notes so the whole lectures don't actually have to be GIVEN orally, and thinking up ways to spend parts of the grants on their own research.

So which is the Farm Team and which is the Triple-A and Pro? It is much trickier than just print vs. online. There are ghettos in print, and there are ghettos online. There are castles and moats in print and there are castles and moats online. That is the best way I know to think about it. I'd be happy to discuss it with anyone in my comments board in the weblog ("Clay Shirky is on to something, as usual: Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing").


May 10, 2002 at 12:33 AM in Best Essays | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack