Posts tagged ‘Clay Shirky’
As we venture away from familiar ground and strike out into the blank areas of the map, we have to face our fears, the possibility that we will not return from the areas marked by warning signs and illustrations of frightening and horrific beasts.
As Clay Shirky said about newspapers:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
We don’t know what the future holds, and there are no guarantees. I’d guess that’s a pretty uncomfortable proposition for even the hardiest adventurer, and librarians are no exception. At least to some degree we are in the preservation business. We don’t give up on things easily. We don’t change our models lightly. And we don’t like hearing that what we’ve worked so hard to uphold and protect might disappear.
The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re going to miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model.
If we want to survive and thrive over the long haul, flexibility will be essential. We have to be able to adapt to rapid changes, rapidly. As individuals, organizations, as a profession, we need to be nimble, much more so than we currently are. And we have to be brave. Very brave. We have to be brave enough to continually, honestly, brutally evaluate everything we do, even if it means killing our sacred cows. We have to look at the worst case scenario – what if libraries really are dying? What does that mean for us individually, as a profession, and for our society as a whole?
I’m reminded of a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. (p. 4)
We can no longer rely on the maps of those who came before us – we have to create our own. This is where the true adventuring begins. This is where our mettle is tested. This is where dragons are slain.
This is the second post in the “Blazing Trails” series. Part 1 is “The Lay of the Land.”
Libraries are not the only institutions struggling to survive in the face of change. There have been a lot of interesting discussions coming out of the field of journalism in recent years, and much of that discussion is relevant to libraries. A little over a year ago, Clay Shirky analyzed the problems of the newspaper industry on his blog. The problem, he said, wasn’t that newspapers were blindsided by the Internet, it was that all their solutions were built on an erroneous assumption:
The curious thing about all the plans hatched in the ‘90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.
This is one of my great concerns for libraries: are we merely giving ourselves a “digital facelift” rather than facing the hard truth about how technological and societal change is affecting our core services?
The FTC recently posted a working draft of potential policies to “support the reinvention of journalism.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Well, don’t get too excited. Jeff Jarvis posted his review of the document, and in essence, what it portrays is an attempt to save the existing models and institutions of journalism without honestly or critically evaluating them. True reinvention is nowhere to be seen. Jarvis says:
If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.
The unstated but evident premise of the FTC’s approach is that new technology is a threat to be mitigated, not an opportunity to explore or exploit. Fear dominates the thinking and prevents the possibility for insight and innovation. This is valuable insight for libraries. If we are too preoccupied with our survival, we are likely to miss the best chances to ensure it. And I think we have to find ways to approach these possibilities from the perspective of our customers. As Clay Shirky points out:
We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive. – Cognitive Surplus, p. 210
Survival is the goal, but more than that, it’s survival with a minimum of discomfort and change. Sound familiar? As anthropologist Jennifer James says, “You can choose deep change or slow death. Most people prefer slow death.”
We can circle our wagons and survive for a time, but in doing so we stop moving forward. Focusing only on survival is a short-term solution which, ironically, will probably hasten our demise. We have to recognize that we are living in revolutionary times, and act accordingly.
Stay tuned for part 3…
I’m a little over halfway through Here Comes Everybody, and I’m reading with a box of Page Points by my side (of course, the book is a library copy – I’ll have to buy my own so I can leave my markers in place and go back to them later). I’m up to the 7th chapter now, but so far Chapter 3 is the one with the most passages marked. Shirky discusses the effect of the internet on more traditional media and the mass amateurization of tasks that used to be the purview of professionals. He gets right to the heart of some of the things we’ve been discussing in the library world, and particularly just this past week at Eureka. Here are just a few choice tidbits:
For people with a professional outlook, it’s hard to understand how something that isn’t professionally produced could affect them….Most professions exist because there is a scare resource that requires ongoing management…a professional learns things in a way that differentiates her from most of the populace, and she pays as much or more attention to the judgment of her peers as to the judgment of her customers when figuring out how to do her job….Sometimes, thought, the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake – the professionals themselves – from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession….It is easier to understand that you face competition than obsolescence. In any profession, particularly one that has existed long enough that no one can remember a time when it didn’t exist, members have a tendency to equate provisional solutions to particular problems with deep truths about the world. This is true of newspapers today and of the media generally….A professional often becomes a gatekeeper…Professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in ordinary times, become a disadvantage in revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession. In most cases, those threats are also threats to society; we don not want to see a relaxing of standards for becoming a surgeon or a pilot. But in some cases the change that threatens the the profession benefits society, as did the spread of the printing press; even in these situations the professionals can be relied on to care more about self-defense than about progress. What was once a service has become a bottleneck.
This chapter really made me squirm. I don’t agree with everything Shirky says (and he does mention libraries as well as the media), but I think he brings some valuable insights to the discussion. I don’t believe that libraries and librarians are obsolete, but I certainly think we could become so if we focused on the wrong things. Anyway, this book is challenging me in a lot of ways, AND it’s really interesting. Read it, think about it, talk about it. I’m curious to hear what others have to say.