Posts tagged ‘Clay Shirky’

Blazing Trails, pt. 3: Here be dragons

This is the third part of the Blazing Trails series. Part 1 is “The Lay of the Land.” Part 2 is “Preoccupied with Survival.”

If  we can no longer rely on the established models, what do we do? What does it really mean for libraries to strike out into uncharted territories?

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.

Shirky again:

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.


July 21, 2010 at 10:09 pm 3 comments

Blazing Trails, pt. 2: Preoccupied with survival

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…

July 14, 2010 at 10:12 pm 4 comments

A Teaser

I’ve been working on a big post for the last week or so, and it’s nearly done (and will probably be the longest thing I’ve ever posted), so stay tuned! But I thought I’d give you a quick recommendation in the meantime.

I’m nearly done with Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus (excellent so far – full review to follow when I’m done). I definitely recommend that you read it, and if you’d like a little taste, here’s Clay talking about some of the concepts from the book in his latest TEDTalk.

June 30, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Public and Private

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus. Terrible title – makes it sound like a boring textbook – but the book is fantastic. I’ll write about it in more detail when I’m finished, but I came across a blog post that dovetails nicely with some of Shirky’s points as well as recent events, so I thought I’d mention it now.

Author Jeff Jarvis writes a blog called BuzzMachine. He writes about news and media and new media, but he’s also written about his battle with cancer. In this post he writes about the value of sharing information:

Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy – to control our information and identities – but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet. We have plenty of privacy advocates. I want to be a publicness advocate.

Libraries have always been great advocates of privacy, and I think that’s important. But in the wake of all the recent Facebook privacy controversy, I think this is a really valid point to make. Do I think that Facebook (or any other site) ought to make clear what’s public and what’s private, and not change those settings for people without their knowledge or permission? Absolutely! But people also have the ability to trade a measure of privacy for greater connection online, and the potential benefits of sharing are tremendous.

One of Shirky’s big points is that there is a great deal of social value, and often even civic value, in what people share online, and to denigrate social media tools as time-wasters or navel-gazing is to miss the point. Jarvis is opinionated and outspoken and has been blasted for oversharing the details of his health problems, but he is quick to point out the support, encouragement and valuable information he wouldn’t have received any other way than through responses to what he puts out in public. As a general rule, I think free-flowing information is good, and that it’s the responsibility of each person to determine for themselves what they do or don’t want to read, watch or experience.

As librarians, what’s our role? A lot of these decisions and transactions happen outside of our purview and without our input, but we can be vocal within our spheres of influence, advocating for more transparency in privacy controls and for keeping information free and accessible. And we can certainly help educate our customers so that they are well-informed when it comes time to make those decisions for themselves.

June 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm

A new style of leadership?

I came across a good interview with Clay Shirky, where he talks about how social media is creating a demand for new kinds of leadership. I’m not sure it’s the style of leadership that’s new; I think what’s new is the demand. Either way, there’s a shift happening. A couple of good quotes:

There’s a temptation among most managers to view social media tools and crowdsourcing as simply a sort of novel set of instruments, kind of like, “Oh, here are some new tools for us to get our job done.” But this isn’t just about laying our hands on some new tools. These crowds are people. …

It really does involve a degree of openness on the part of existing organizations that we haven’t seen before. In fact, if you’re a manager of a traditional organization looking for control, you will have trouble in this Web 2.0 environment. …

The other question about the new type of leadership is how to get a group of people to all agree that a shared vision is something they’ll pursue even if they don’t agree with every particular.

Go read the whole thing – it’s not too long. [via PopTech]

September 1, 2009 at 10:15 pm 2 comments

Clay Shirky is kicking my ass

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.

May 4, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Food for Thought

Watch this Clay Shirky video at Making Light – very thought provoking.

April 27, 2008 at 9:40 pm

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