Authors@Google: Clay Shirky

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 14.07.2010

>>Karen: Hello, everybody and greetings to everybody on VC. I'm Karen Wickre and it gives
me great pleasure to introduce our guest, Clay Shirky, today. Clay, his day job is teaching
at NYU in the Interactive Telecommunications program, but the guy manages to sneak in a
lot of writing and speaking somehow through his schedule.
I, I still have "Here Comes Everybody" half-read and now here comes "Cognitive Surplus", so
he's busy all the time. He's a really insightful speaker and thinker on Internet and the collision
of online and offline worlds and I know you're gonna enjoy his talk. So, please give a welcome
to Clay.
>>Clay: Thank you, am I on? Yes. Thank you very much and hello everybody in VC land.
That's what you heard and we can go to slides. Got a book came out, it came out last Thursday,
"Cognitive Surplus," it's, in fact, available for sale in the back, exit to the gift shop.
[audience member laughs]
[Clay clears throat]
Rather than talk about Cognitive Surplus in the abstract, I want to start with a story
that I think illustrates what's, what's happening now with this, with this collective resource.
So, the story starts January of last year; January of 2009 in Mangalore, India--
[clears throat]
where a Hindu fundamentalist group, Sri Ram Sena, attacks women in pubs. They drag the
women out of the bars, slapping them, hitting them. When men step in to try and defend,
the men are also attacked and as, by now, usual all of this is documented with photos
and videos and camera phones uploaded to Flickr and YouTube.
I just have, have to say Picasa and YouTube here, but uploaded to photo and video sharing
sites. And after these images become widespread, Sri Ram Sena says, "We attack those women
because they were not living up to our ideals of Hindu womanhood. They were not being sufficiently
chaste. They were not being sufficiently private and our next attack is going to be on Valentine's
Day. If you're a woman in Mangalore and we catch you out of doors with a male who is
not your blood relative, we will attack you again." Right?
So, this puts the women of Mangalore into a classic collective action problem. Each
woman, faced with a question of what do to on Valentine's Day, can say quite reasonably,
"I'm staying home." But, of course, by doing that, collectively they will be capitulated
to, to seeing his demands. Or, each woman could say, "Perhaps there will be strength
in numbers. If enough of us turn out, maybe we can, maybe we can see off this threat."
But they have to make that calculation without knowing what the other women facing the same
decision are also, are also deciding, right?
So, against, against this threat, by Pramod Muthalik, who's the, who's the, the leader
of Sri Ram Sena, steps up a woman who offers a third option to this collective option dilemma,
Nisha Susan, who is a Mangalore resident and Susan proposes a way to solve the collective
action problem collectively, rather than having the solution have to be worked out by, by
each of the individuals. And so she founds my favorite Facebook group, the Collection
of Loose, or the Association of Loose, Forward and Pub-Going Women.
And it's a very popular group as you might imagine.
Thousands of people pour in, become members of this group, and their first announced action
is the Pink Chaddi Campaign. Now, the members of Sri Ram Sena are derided as underpants
wearers because they favor these khaki shorts, which people say look like diapers.
So, the women of the Association of Loose, Forward and Pub-Going Women decide that they're
going to mail pink underwear to Promud Muthalik and the members of Sri Ram Sena. And so, they
get a lot of pink underwear, they write messages across the back, they mail it in. And this
has three immediate effects. One of the effects, of course, is to enrage Sri Ram Sena who says,
"This is terrible. We're going to mail these women appropriately covering garb in return."
They didn't actually do that, they just said they were going to do that.
The second effect was on the Indian government who saw an organized group of citizens who
cared about a particular issue and vote. And so they decided to arrest Muthalik for the
attacks, Muthalik and some of the senior leaders of the Sri Ram Sena on February 13th. Thus,
clearing Valentine's Day from, from the attacks.
And the third group, the third group benefiting from this was the Mangalore women themselves
who saw that here was a way that they could pool their otherwise uncoordinated actions
to achieve an outcome that wouldn't have been, wouldn't have been possible without, without
this coordinating effect, right? So this, this ability--
[clears throat]
to pool, to pool those kind of resources together is what I'm calling "cognitive surplus," right?
Cognitive surplus has two pieces, right? One of them is the free time and talents available
in the educated world, right? Cumulatively, as a population, we have over a trillion hours
a year to give over to activities we like or care about. And--
[clears throat]
it is, it is that free time and talent that are used in places like the Association of,
of Loose, Forward and Pub-Going Women. But we had that free time in the 20th century,
too. In fact, that free time built up dramatically after the second World War; rising educational
attainment, rising life expectancy and rising population. In the 20th century, we didn't'
get events like this.
That's the second piece of cognitive surplus. It's not just that we have free time and talent,
but now we have a medium that can allow us to find each other and to pool our efforts.
Not to use free time to be used up as an individual level, but rather treat it as something that
can be used in aggregate at the group level. Here is another example of that. Whoops, I'm
sorry. So, to, to express, right, what is possible now with cognitive surplus--
[clears throat]
I need a metric and there wasn't an obvious one. So, I called up my friend, Martin Wattenberg,
at IBMs research lab who studies Wikipedia and together, we hashed out what we thought
might be a measurement of, of what's possible.
So, Wikipedia is our, our oldest and largest example of general public participation in
a shared project. And Wikipedia, Martin and I kind of worked out in a kind of back of
the envelope way, has taken something like a hundred million hours of cumulative human
thought. Every page in every language, every edit, every talk page, something on the order
of a hundred million hours, right? So, take the number one use of free time in, in the
developed world, which is of course, watching television, right? If you imagine graphing
the total number of hours, right?
Imagine a graph of the total number of hours of television. In the US, we watch 200 billion
hours, right, every year, right? Wikipedia would be here, right? So, there is such an
enormous amount of free time that even very slight increases in our ability to pool it
together and even very slight upticks in our desire to participate can lead to dramatically
different effects than we were used to from the media landscape in the 20th century. So,
here's an example of that--
[clears throat]
another story of that at work. This story from, from Kenya at the beginning of 2008,
Kenya had a presidential election, hotly disputed, and in the aftermath of the election, electoral
violence broke out, or rather, ethnic violence broke out post, post the election. And Ory
Okolloh, a lawyer living in Nairobi, was blogging about this at her blog, Kenyan Pundit, which
became one of the sites of the discussion of the events in Kenya.
And as she was blogging about this in the aftermath of the election, the Kenyan government
announced a complete media blackout on all live reporting of any sort. And so suddenly,
the Kenyan blogster went from being part of the media landscape to being one of the principle
sources of information about what was going on, given the lockdown of the traditional
press. So, Okolloh began soliciting narratives--
[clears throat]
from her commenter's. They would come; offer things to her, Okolloh would post them on
the site, aggregate things. And each, she, Kenyan Pundit, her blog, became so indispensible
that she said, "I can't, I can't keep up, right? I could do this 24 hours a day and
I couldn't publish all the information that's coming in from my own commenter's. If only
there was a way to do this automatically."
Two programmers showed up on the comments, held their hands up and said, "We can build
that." Right? Seventy two hours later, Ushahidi launches. Ushahidi, I was actually chastised
this morning for mispronouncing it, it's "oo-sha-hee-dee," is a very simple tool for crisis mapping.
All it does is it takes reports from the field, whether over the web or email, or critically,
SMS off the mobile phone. It aggregates them and it puts it on a map. What it does is it
takes what the population knows as a whole, in a tacit and distributed way, and aggregates
it and makes it public and, and observable.
[clears throat]
And in doing that, right, they, they take a diffuse, general knowledge that isn't of
much use, and they turn it into an actual resource.
This worked well enough in Kenya that the programmers who had been working on it decided
to turn it into a platform and it's now become a general purpose crisis mapping tool; all
volunteer labor, open source project. It's been used in Mexico to track the risk of electoral
fraud. It's been used in Washington, D.C, to track snow removal, right, first world
It's been used, most famously, in Haiti in the aftermath of the awful Port-au-Prince
earthquake to track both emergencies and also places where there's security threats, public
health outbreaks, infrastructure, medicine, all of it, right? It has gone, in less than
three years, it has gone from its East African origin to become a worldwide tool and when
you go on the site, you look at the map, right, and you see the places where, where Ushahidi
has been implemented. It's everywhere but Antarctica.
[clears throat]
What, what Ory Okolloh did would not have been possible without digital technology.
What Ory Okolloh did would not have been possible without human generosity. And what's interesting
to me now is the stories where both of those things are true. The stories that become possible
because both of those things are true.
Not just shiny new technology making new kinds of things possible; that's a story that's
well told. But rather technology providing an opportunity for ancient human motivations
of generosity and participation to manifest themselves on a public stage in a way that's
much larger covers a larger geographic area and is much longer lived than what we were
used to generous acts, acts being performed.
So, taking this combination of human generosity and digital opportunity, we are seeing in
examples like the Nisha Susan story, like the Ory Okolloh story, incredible use of the
cognitive surplus. And when you look around, right, you can see this everywhere. Cognitive
surplus is leading to amazing efforts in scientific, literary, artistic, political creativity of
the sort that we would not have expected to see, right? It also leads, of course, to lots
and lots of lolcats, right?
Lolcats are cute pictures of cats made cuter with the addition of cute captions, are also,
are also use of the cognitive surplus, right? Because free time is free time, experiments
are experiments. There's no need for it to be high-minded. It can be all over the map
and in fact, it is.
Now, it's tempting, it's tempting to want Ushahidi without the lolcats; to get the good
stuff without the throw away culture. But that's not the way media revolutions work.
Freedom to experiment means freedom to experiment. Full stop, right? This isn't the only revolution
when that had happened.
[clears throat]
When we got the sacred printing press, we got erotic novels 150 years before we got
scientific journals, right?
first example of each separated, as you can see, by some span of time. So, this is actually
the normal case for large changes in the abundance of media and for greatly lowered costs of
participation and creation. The key thing here is not whether you get a mix of, of low
and high culture, of throw away and stuff that lasts through the ages.
The key thing here is on this side of the equation, right? How much of what matters
isn't about the technology itself, but about the culture that forms around it. And that,
I think, and this is one of the central theses of the book, that's the moment we're in right
now. Not fighting over the technology, the basics of which we have largely sketched in,
and it's not fighting over the possibility of participating, which is manifesting itself
visibly and daily in all kinds of ways. It's really the cultural assumptions around those
possibilities that, that are, I think, are the big open question now.
[clears throat]
So, to make an analogy, again, continuing on, on, on the comparison of the printing
press, here is an image of an alchemist's laboratory. And here is an image of a chemist's
laboratory. Spot the difference? No, of course not. There is no difference, right?
The interesting thing about the transition from alchemy to chemistry is that alchemists
and chemists had the same tools. They had braziers and vials and, and, and scales, right?
Alchemists and chemists had the same techniques. There was no technical revolution that kicked
off chemistry, right?
Alchemists and chemists were, in many cases, the same people who simply converted from
one way of doing things to another way of doing things. The difference between alchemy
and chemistry, the thing that kicked off chemistry as a science, was not about the tools, was
not about the techniques, it was about the culture. In the 1640s, a group of people who
got together calling themselves "natural philosophers" as, as scientists, you know, essentially the
precursor to scientist, got together in the United Kingdom and called themselves "The
Invisible College."
And the Invisible College was invisible because they had no physical home, neither in Oxford
or Cambridge. They met in coffee houses and they communicated through letters. And they
set themselves on a remarkable task, which is that they decided, formally and as a group,
that they would not believe anything that was not true, right?
Now this is hard because we are not as a species well equipped to subject our own beliefs to
the kind of withering scrutiny that would tell us when our beliefs are wrong. We do,
however, have a related skill. We're very good at subjecting other people's beliefs
to withering scrutiny, right?
[clears throat}
Enter the Scientific Journal, right? The thing that moved us from alchemy to chemistry was
the decision to publish; to make public. And in fact, the member of the Invisible College
wrote quite bitterly about the writings of the alchemists because it was incredibly obscure.
And even if an experiment was described, there was no guarantee that you could recreate it
and even if you could recreate it, there was no guarantee that you could understand the
And so the chemist's motto, "Nothing from words," meant that they would not believe
any assertion without seeing it published in such a way that someone else could try
it to test the results, right? That kind of cultural shift is, is, I think, both the opportunity
and the challenge we face now. Not with the tools make possible, right, but what culture
we can build around the tools to make the tools useful.
The printing press did not cause the Scientific Revolution and also, the Scientific Revolution
would not have been possible without the printing press. Both of those things are true and the
thing that balances those statements are the cultural decisions around the use of the tools,
not the tools themselves.
[clears throat]
So, I'm gonna talk about an example where I see people trying to make this kind of cultural
change part of their world. This is one of the most audacious attempts I know of presently
to do this kind of thing. This is a screen shot from a site called patientslikeme and
patientslikeme aggregates patient data from long-term degenerative diseases with, with
either few or no cures.
They are, among other things now, the holder to the largest data set on Lou Gehrig's disease.
And on patientslikeme, individual patients set up a username and list information about
themselves. This is a 23 year-old female from Scotland who has depression and anxiety and
she graphs her mood, right? Both in point moments and she talks about her mood over
time, how is she, is she high functioning, is she low functioning, is she feeling a lot
of distress?
And, this will be no, this is giving away no state secrets inside Google, the ability
to aggregate data across a bunch of small, unreliable sources, changes things, right?
Quantitative data at large enough scale becomes qualitative data. So, they are able to do
things like, say, what drug are you on? What dosage does your doctor got you on? And they
can see the consensus view of the medical profession as a graph of the dosage of these
various drugs.
The pharma companies do not have this data. Only patientslikeme is able to aggregate this
at large enough scale, right? Now, this, this is an attempt to create an alternate medical
culture, right? And it's, right, patientslikeme is itself a commercial site and yet they're
plainly engaging the participants in cultural ways, right? So, it is a mix of for profit
and non for profit motivations. It's a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. And
that seems really strange.
In fact, there's a thesis that's been proposed by Nicholas Carr, an idea proposed by Nicholas
Carr, that he calls the "digital sharecropper" situation. Why are people contributing their
data in a way that's making other people rich? Why are people uploading videos or, or photos
adding to Google or Yahoo sharecropping, right? To which my response has always been that,
that Flickr and YouTube are nothing compared to Lego, who's tricked two generations of
the world's children into assembling their products for them--
thus saving billions of dollars at the factory while violating international child labor
laws, right?
And once, once you see that, once you see that model, it's obvious, well the kids like
putting the tools together, right? So, in fact, there is this mix in commercial operations
of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The only real surprise is that's its now happening
in the media landscape, where in an environment where previously only professionals had access
to the public sphere, now we all do.
Now to curiosity of our historical era, and I don't think we'll ever know whether this
was co-, coincidence or some kind of deep conversion, that as experiments like this
are going on, as people are using the cognitive surplus to bring users together to create
resources, services, value that couldn't have existed otherwise.
Social scientists are also starting to tell us a lot about human motivation and, in particular,
the ways in which our intrinsic motivations matter more than we'd been, then we'd been
told in the 20th century, right? The 20th century picture of humanity, that it was the
kind of consensus view, was that humans are rational, self-maximizing, self-interested
actors who will always try to get the better deal in any given transaction with another
human being.
But as Elinor Ostrom, who, who is the most recent Nobel Laureate in Economics, has shown
in her work, the irony is if you design systems to assume that the actors are selfish, you
end up designing systems in which the selfish, the most selfish actors do best, right? And
what we're starting to learn instead, is that we have intrinsic motivations, non financial
motivations, that affect our behavior in profound ways that aren't demonstrated, aren't explained
by neoclassical economics or the sort of attended social [inaudible].
Here's an example of one of those explanations from recent research. This is, this is a graph
[clears throat]
excuse me, from an essay published by Uri Gneezy and Alfredo Rustichini in the Journal
of Legal Studies in the beginning of this decade. And Gneezy and Rustichini set out
to examine what they called the "deterrence theory," a very simple theory widely, widely
held, particularly in the legal profession, hence the journal they published it in.
And deterrence theory is very simple. If you want someone to do less of something, add
a punishment. If you want someone to do more of something, take a punishment away. Straightforward,
common sensical, also largely untested. So they said, "We're gonna test it." So, they
went and observed ten day care centers in Haifa, Israel. And they observed those day
care centers at the moment of highest tension, which is pick-up time. Because at pick-up
time, the teachers have been with your children all day--
and they would like those children returned to your care at the appointed hour and no
other. Meanwhile, well, maybe you're a little late at work, or maybe you're running an errand,
there's traffic, you want a little slack to pick your kid up late.
So Gneezy and Rustichini said, "How many episodes at these te-, ten day care centers, how many
episodes are there at late pick-up time on average?" The x-axis is weeks elapsed of observation,
y-axis is number of late pick-ups and you can see that there are between six and twelve
late pick-ups a week across these ten day care centers. So they took these day care
centers, they put them in two groups. The, the group in the white squares is the control
group; they did nothing. The group with the black diamonds is the experimental group and
to the half the day care centers that were the experimental group, they said, "Ok, we
are changing the deal as of right now. You pick your kid up more than ten minutes late,
ten shekels added to your bill, no if's, ands or but's; automatic fine."
And the minute they added the fine, the behavior at those day care centers changed. Late pickups
went up every week for the next four weeks, topping out at triple the pre-fine average
and then fluctuating between double and triple the pre-fine average for the remainder of
the experiment, right? You can see immediately what happened, right? The fine broke the culture,
right? When Gneezy and Rustichini communicated to the parents that paying ten shekels they
had discharged the whole of the debt to the day care center and there was no residue of
social concern or guilt left? The parents, quite reasonably said, "Ten shekels to pick
my kid up late, what could be bad?"
So, this goes on for awhile and then they said, "Ok, thank you very much. The fine is
over. We're done with this experiment." And then a really interesting thing happened.
Nothing changed, right?
Not only did the fine break the culture, but once it was broken it stayed broken even though
the fine was removed. So, they have now contradicted both halves of the deterrence system. They've
added a punishment and made their behavior worse. They moved, they removed a punishment
and not made the behavior any better. Now, the new, classical explanation of these day
care centers says that in the absence of a contract that a fine in some kind of formal
agreed behavior, the parents and the teachers were operated together with no constraints,
but that's not true.
They were just operating with cultural constraints and as we can see from the control group here,
humming along as they were, the cultural constraints actually created a more generous environment
than the contractual ones. This doesn't mean we never need contracts. It does mean we need
to be very careful about designing social systems that assume that contracts can either
automatically augment or automatically substitute for cultural norms as a way of coordinating
group behavior.
So, back to patientslikeme. There's a 23 year-old woman in Scotland who's uploading her diagnosis,
her symptoms, her medications, the amount of the dose; all of these things violate every
message that comes in public about medical privacy. "Oh my God! Don't share that information.
Don't tell people you're manic-depressive, don't tell people you suffer from anxiety,
don't tell people you're taking this drug, don't tell them how much of it."
What patientslikeme has in mind isn't just a kind of alternative that will help the people
that come together on this site. What they have in mind is nothing less than breaking
current culture around sharing. At the bottom of every page, they have a privacy policy,
as one would if you were in their business and they say, "We will keep your data private
to the degree that you want us to."
But they also have something called an "openness philosophy" and it is linked to, not by accident,
next to the privacy policy wherever it appears. And on that page they make a really dramatic
argument to the users of the site saying, "We're abiding by what the law requires of
us to keep your data private and we recognize that we're operating in a culture that assumes
privacy as the norm," and a really tightly held to the chest privacy at that, and notwithstanding
all of that, "We think that all our lives will be better if we share this data. We can
accelerate medical research. We can find panels of sufferers of the disease faster. We can
get more variable panels. We can lower the cost and increase the outcomes of cures for
these diseases." If all patientslikeme does is succeeds in making its own users feel better,
they will actually have failed, right?
They've set out to do nothing less than change the prevailing culture of the business they
are operating in. And that, that is an effort, I think, on the level of audacity that reminds
me of what the Invisible College was. Which brings me back to the lolcats.
So, cognitive surplus is a general resource available to all of us if we can put something,
if we can put an opportunity out there that attracts the ancient human motivations of
people feeling autonomous or competent, feeling a sense of membership or generosity, the kinds
of intrinsic things that make us want to donate our free time to these various activities.
And there are an enormous range of activities that are now resulting from this, from this
new shared resource, right? The story we had in the 20th century was that we all liked
to be couch potatoes, that we sat around watching TV all the time and that was our participation
in the media landscape because that was how we wanted to be, right? Now, we have a medium
that doesn't just let people consume. It also lets us produce and it lets us share and we're
seeing lots and lots of versions of that appear. So, lolcats is one example of that.
Another example, I, I pulled this off, off mockpages, off the Lego fan site, this is
the Lego zombie group. It's, its people who only build zombie-like, zombie-like models
of Lego's, but then, of course, share, share their construction in voluminous detail. And
then, of course, Wikipedia, which I already touched on, and finally patientslikeme, which
I just talked about. A kind of sketch of the range of the use of cognitive surplus, but
here's the thing. There's a different kind of value, right, being produced, there's a
different model of, of value being created on each of these sites, right?
The value created by something like lolcats, essentially an aggregate of funny stuff, it's
basically personal. If you wanna crack yourself up or crack your friends up on a coffee break,
you can always go to and purveyors of lolcats worldwide. And you
don't have to be a member of a community in any meaningful fashion to do that, right?
The value from lolcats is essentially an aggregate of personal, personal motivation to upload
the cats and then personal motivation, right? The Lego groups don't work quite that way.
They are more tightly bound to one another, right? You do need to be a member of a community
on some level to get the kind of community of practice value of, "I saw this person do
this, and then I took that, I took that drawing or that, that sketch and I built on it," right?
So, this is value created by the members of the community for each other. That value is
created inside the community and largely captured inside the community as well. Wikipedia, a
different kind of value yet again.
This is value created by the participants, but enjoyed by the public at large, right?
A third of a billion people check in to Wikipedia every month, but only a tiny, tiny fraction
of those people edit pages, about two percent, and only a tiny, tiny fraction of that are
Wikipedians, people deeply committed to the project. So, that small group has an enormous
amount of leverage on creating what's become, in less than ten years, the most important
reference work in the English language. This is public value.
And finally, patientslikeme, for the reasons I just discussed; civic value. Patientslikeme
doesn't mean to just make life better for its users or for the general public. It actually
means to change the civic culture it operates in. So, this is where the book ends and this
is where I will end. This seems to me to be the great open question now, is what we do
with this resource on this axis, right? Now, I like lolcats as much as the next guy. I
actually maybe like them more even than the next guy.
But, I have a hard time envisioning a future where some Internet user is saying to themselves,
"Where, oh where, can I find a picture of a cute cat?" Right?
That strikes me as being a largely solved problem, right? Up here, I have no idea whether
patientslikeme will succeed. That is an incredibly audacious goal they have set for themselves
and the forces arrayed against patients creating the kind of value for themselves that used
to be captured by the market, even at the price of great inefficiency, is going to lead
to increasing push back if they start to succeed.
Expect to see attempts, to see them legislated out of business within a year or two. I have
no inside knowledge about this. This is just a prediction of about the kinds of forces
we have seen at work in other industries. So, the lesson here, I think, is given this
cognitive surplus and given that we can take this end of the range as a basically solved
problem, the action is up here, right? Dean Kamen, the inventor and entrepreneur said,
"Free cultures get what they celebrate."
The opportunity we have here is for us to be the people who both do, but also celebrate
and aid the people taking on public and civic value. It's the harder value to create and
the more of that kind of value there is, the more opposition there will be from society.
But ultimately, our ability to, to see to it that the public and civic minded uses of
this succeed will be the thing that determines how much value we end up getting out of this
cognitive surplus. Thank you very much.
I think I've got, yeah, time for a couple questions. There's a mic, yeah, down in the
>>membermale1: So, it's a wonderful vision, I like the communal, the public, the personal,
the civic--
>>Clay: Mm-hmm.
>>membermale1: and all of that and you've been telling us really great, warm, fuzzy
>>Clay: Mm-hmm.
>>membermale1: There's the other side of the same point that--
>>Clay: Mm-hmm.
>>membermale1: you're represented by things like 4chan. Those same technologies, those
same mechanisms, can be used to create dis-, great disruptions--
>>Clay: Mm-hmm.
>>membermale1: and in the battle for the hearts and minds of the civic/Internet/information
>>Clay: Yup.
>>membermale1: universe. How is this gonna work out?
[Clay clears throat]
>>Clay: Well, so this is, this is, one of the great questions. Freedom is good, right?
And it sounds dumb when you say it that way, but that's, that's kind of my animating belief.
And one of the things I've observed is that in-in-in our catalog of communicative freedoms,
freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, we have widespread freedom of
speech and freedom of press and freedom of assembly have been, have been narrowly, narrowly
Now, those are also becoming widely distributed. And it seems to me the, the, the question
around the, the harm that can be done by groups, 4chan is, is on the list, but I think well
down from say, Al-Qaeda or the pro-anorexia kids. I mean, there's, there's lots, there's
lots of these examples and, and plainly some of them, some of them in the book.
What we do with free speech is we shift from interdicting it in advance to responding to
it when it happens, right? We're not yet used to that for public speech and public coordination
by amateurs because we haven't had a world where that's been a big problem so far. But,
you know, when I talk about free cultures getting what they celebrate, a lot of this
is really about putting the attention on the people who are, who are doing that work. I
mean, 4chan, especially, to take that example, is certainly out for nothing if not attention.
And, and the, the shifting of that, you know, by no means easy, really comes down to, I
think finding the groups that have the cultural norms that, that use these tools. You know,
again, back to the, back to the Invisible College example, right? The, the groups that
say, "We're going to use this to create, create positive value." The, the, at the, at the
end of any big transition like this, there are good new things and goo-, bad new things.
And in some cases, our inability to stop groups from forming; something we enjoyed quite a
lot in the 20th century and now don't enjoy almost at all, is just gonna go in the bad
And so our job becomes not stopping those bad things from happening completely, because
we can't, but rather making sure that the good we get out of the good stuff is high
enough to counterbalance it. In the same way that freedom of speech means Nazi's get to
march in Skokie, but it also gives us the environment that we're all, you know, we're
all fortunate enough to live in them.
So, I don't, I don't mean to sugarcoat this, but in a way, out of a kind of almost fatalist
view that there is no future in the Internet Revolution that doesn't include new bad effects,
our ability to recognize and highlight the good effects is the only thing that will change
the balance in the favor of the value of the revolution over the, over the long haul, right?
>>membermale1: Thanks.
>>Clay: Sure.
>>membermale2: One of the things you just mentioned in your last answer was that members
of 4chan do what they do for attention, but what, what I wanted to ask you is in light
of the fact that 4chan is, for all intensive purposes, anonymous, where does anonymity
fit into the amount of value generation--
>>Clay: Yeah.
>>membermale2: by this cognitive surplus? Is it, is it something we should try to preserve
or is it something, obviously the paradigm is shifting towards non anonymous activities?
>>Clay: Right.
>>membermale2: And what is the, I guess, effect of that?
>>Clay: So I, so here's, the--
[clears throat]
I think all attempts to say we need to have a non anonymous Internet full stop, you know,
a reason-, again, this language has come out of Italy. Periodically, the world's governments
decide this is a good idea for all the reasons you would expect. South Korea has, is, is
going, I don't have to tell you because they've been locked out of YouTube for awhile.
That, that, the, every time one of the worlds governments says that they're gonna drain
the swamp of anonymity, they're almost always operating out of a desire to prevent politically
motivated actors from having, having publically accessible speech without, without national
control, which I think is something I think we should be skeptical about. Where I think
this is going is, is what Bob Axelrod showed in his prisoner's dilemma work, the original
sort of computer modeling of just very simple interaction patterns, which is that small
groups of cooperating actors can actually build an environment for themselves inside
a larger hostile environment in which, in which value is possible.
Where I think anonymity is going is away from a general class of availability on the Internet
to a, a site by site, and an area by area decision as to whether or not to allow things
to be anonymous. So, some weblogs will say, in order to encourage civil discussion and
kind of long term conversational value among, you know, well known participants, you have
to log in and you, at least, have to have a well-defined pseudonym, right?
If you look at what Jeff and Joel, Jeff, Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky are doing with Stack
Overflow, a s-, you know, a really amazing in terms of value creation around persistent
pseudonyms for making sure you get good, good action. And then you look at Wikileaks and
you, and you think the design of Wikileaks has to have the opposite set of characteristics
in order to do what they do. Now, again, this is without saying, you know, without putting
Wikileaks in neither the wholly good or wholly bad category, Wikileaks is an example of a
site that couldn't work with those, with those characteristics.
So, I think, I think the big fight right now is funnily enough not in the social norms
around anonymity or non anonymity, which we've got relatively well worked out. It's in the
technological ease of use around making the decision, "I'm gonna make this site privilege,
pseudonyms or real names," right? If I could go back in time and do anything different
to the Internet, other than fixing the 32 bit address space problem--
I would go back to the O OFF people and I would beg on bended knee, beg for that to
be easier to implement because the, right now, even the people who want to flip the
bit to say, "We're creating a protected environment for a less anonymous, a site of less anonymous
speech," can't make that choice easily. It's better than it was, but it's not, it's not
great yet. Wikipedia, I'm on the advisory board at Wikipedia, although I, I don't speak
for them, but one of the big conversations there, for the obvious reason, is around,
you know, well known actors.
And it's used as an implicit heuristic right now, but there is no identity commons good
enough for Wikipedia to say, "This is low enough cost that we can throw this in people's
way and it won't significantly impact the number of edits we get." And it's that, right?
It, I mean it's funny, just given a whole talk in which I'm saying, "Ah the technology,
it's largely done now concentrating on the social problem." This is actually one of the
places where it's really like the engineering hurdle. For someone who wants to say, "We'd
like a conversation among well known actors for all the good we get out of that." Like,
that engineering hurdle is still too high, so, there it is.
>>membermale2: Great. Thanks.
>>Clay: Yes, sir.
>>membermale3: I'm, I'm totally sure I'm gonna screw up his name, but Jaron Lanier--
>>Clay: Yeah.
>>membermale3: the "You are Not a Gadget" guy?
>>Clay: Yeah.
>>membermale3: So, that just came out and he's pretty anti any kind of--
>>Clay: [laughs] Yes, yes he is.
>>membermale3: economized group, organization, right? So, how would you respond to that?
I mean, obviously there's these kind of good examples--
>>Clay: Right, right.
>>membermale3: one after another, but he says--
>>Clay: Well.
>>membermale3: the, that ultimately the dehumanizing effect.
>>Clay: Yeah. I mean, this is, this is, so, so, so Jaron's book is out, Nick Carr's book
also, "The Shallows" is out and he, yeah, it's. Jaron is the more complicated case in
a way.
Which, I guess, goes without saying for anything having to do with Jaron. There, there is a
lot in there that reads to me like pure iconoclasm, right? The "you kids keep off my lawn" aspect,
the "Oh, the music today, these kids with their, ah, it's awful," you know? I'll tell
you, in Brooklyn the music scene right now is exploding. So, I, the, that, that strikes
me as being interpretive in a way that doesn't ramify outside what's going on inside Jaron's
head. On the other hand, his critique of anonymity to the, to the earlier question is exactly
right, right? What, what he says is wrong; there is, is wrong.
And this is, I think, the great shift in my, in my period, now, now coming on 20 years
of, of working on and thinking about, about these technologies. In the 90s, the conversation
about the Internet was conducted between people who knew something and people who knew nothing,
right? They were just, there wasn't a lot of, you know, we used to talk about whether
people would get it or not. Now, we've got people like Jaron, who knows as much about
the network as I do, but are strongly, strongly pessimistic; Nick Carr, I'd put in the same,
in the same category.
It seems to me know that the big, the, the important distinction isn't between optimist
and pessimist, but between handwringers and experimenters and that's, that's what-what-
what gets me now. When I read The Shallows, I'm, "Uh-huh, yup, yup, the Internet's distracting."
Like, who would disagree with that thesis, right?
You know, Carr quotes Cory Doctorow, right? When Nick Carr and Cory Doctorow agree about
something, it can fairly, safely be said to have passed into, into the realm of received
wisdom. And then you get to the part of the book where Carr tells us what to do and that
part is missing. There's nothing. There's nothing in there. He doesn't even say what
his own practices are, right? The guy just wrote a book while being distracted by the
Internet, so he's got something going on, right?
He doesn't even tell us how he manages that.
And I, I have the same, the same concern about, about Jaron's stuff, which is if you read
"You are Not a Gadget," you don't leave knowing what to do, right? Which is to say that there's
no, there's such a lumping together of he doesn't like Wikipedia and has some more respect
for Open Source, but he can't quite sort out the distinction. And there's an opportunity
in there to say, "Wikipedia would be better if it did X." And Wikipedia is all ears about
that. No X, right? And so, it, the, the, the, the pessimists are generally right about what's
wrong with the Internet, but funnily enough, the people who have the best position to make
those, those claims are not using that position to then say, "Here's, here's an opportunity
to do something."
My, my hope, I guess, is that those of us on the experimenter side read the pessimists,
read Jaron, read Nick, with, with an open mind and say, "Oh yeah, that anonymity thing.
That has really been a problem in a number of areas." Or, "Yes, I can, I can absolutely
see how I get distracted by having all of these alerts on." But then taking that as
input for, "Here's some experiments I'm gonna do so that I, I can concentrate more, or that
I can set up a low-cost environment in which anonymity is chased out of the system." And,
and, you know, it, of, of the current crop of pessimist books, that's, I think, the-the-the
use I hope, you know, us and our tribe, to speak loosely, make of that. So, thank you.
[audience member coughs]
>>membermale4: So, really interesting to hear about this idea of trying to make significant
civic change. I think we have a situation, I'll exaggerate it to make the point where
to be elected into politics, you need to lie, ok? And what do you think, I'm probably not
alone here in wanting to see a system where actually people can tell the truth, have measured
debate, and still get into politics. Do you think that, do have ideas about how that could
be achieved along these kind of lines and how long it would take?
>>Clay: Yeah, yes to the first, no to the second. So, one of the great, one of the great
conundrums right now of the current administration, right, when-when-when it became clear that
Obama was, was going to win and we all turned our attention to, "Is he gonna govern like
he campaigned, right? Is he gonna use these tools to run the people's business the way
he used the tools to get the peoples vote?"
And we seem to get an answer the day after the election, when they launched,
right? So, you come in and tell us, right, "We're gonna put a brief on the President's
desk that is the, the accumulation of the nations wisdom about the really important
problems." And the really important problem turned out to be medical marijuana, right?
During, two words, not counting the War on Terrorism, plus the worst financial meltdown
in, in 70 years, right? Medical marijuana and, and out of the top 50, 16 other War on
Drugs averaged, pushed their way into the top ten. And it seems to me that the, the
mistake there was to have a single cue where there was a single name space worth fighting
over, right? Woe betide the person who implements the single namespace worth fighting over and
the, the medical marijuana people were only able to make their point, a quite reasonable
point about the War on Drugs by drowning out everyone else. And they were able to do that
because they were better organized and they had a clearer mission statement.
So, when you go and you go back and you look the, you know, the design of the US Constitution,
James Madison, one of the, one of the architects of the Constitution, spent a lot of time saying,
"You're gonna get factions." Right? Do not try and pretend that there's such a thing
as special interest groups that you can get rid of. All groups are special interest groups.
Government is the place where factions contend; not the place where we get rid of factions.
So, it seems to me that to get, to get to a place where we can have the kind of environment
you want, we're also gonna have to go back to admitting that faction is what's driving
government and that different factions are contending for the attention of that government,
rather than pretending that anybody can govern on behalf of all Americans, as the current,
as the current phrase. It is closer I-I-I assume from your accent, you grew up under
a parliamentary system; it is closer to a parliamentary system than to the rhetoric
we currently have in the US, but that's, given that that's reality on the ground, it seems
to me that getting to that point, doing something, for example, on like saying, "We're
gonna group all the drug issues here and we're gonna say we heard you, but we're not gonna
let you drown out the early childhood education people, or the War in Iraq people, or the
prison reform people."
So that, so that each faction has some place on the stage, but you're not forcing them
to take each other out in order to get the attention of the government. And, you know,
when you look at things like Google Moderator and the, and the, the input that-that-that
Google Moderator has in, you know, in, in the, the federal scene right now, it seems
to me that those kinds of design principles are one of the, one of the essential things
to getting to, to getting to the world you imagine.
Whether we can do that and how long it will take, I don't know. The US is quite surprising
in the issue which will seem intractable for a long time, will suddenly go away in the
space of a couple years. But I, I certainly don't have any sense as to whether this is
one of those issues now.
>>membermale4: Thanks very much and despite my accent, this wasn't a dig at the American
system in particular.
>>Clay: No, no, I don't--
I don't even mean that. I just, I was conscious while you were talking that, that what I was
proposing sounds a lot more like a parliamentary system than-than-than like the two party,
possibly three party system we, we currently have.
>>membermale4: Thank you very much.
>>Clay: Thanks very much.
>>membermale5: Hi. As another person from the same parliamentary system, my question
is that all, valuable things we could do with the cognitive surplus--
>>Clay: Uh-huh.
>>membermale5: I was wondering how do you see social networks fitting into that hierarchy?
>>Clay: They don't. I think that they're more a tool. I wouldn't, I wouldn't wanna propose
that, or it could say it has one particular, one particular place there. To take, to take
just the example from here, right, Nisha Susan used the network to coordinate people to take
real world, to take real world action. The one thing I will say about social networks
is that our bias, you know, technologically our bias for the last, you know, few decades,
has been to lower the cost of messaging, right? And, and it's had all of these wonderful effects
that we've seen, but that around political speech, low cost messaging has actually become
a problem, right?
We now, you know, campaigns are routinely conducted to affect the business of the US
Congress, which are conducted on the McDonald's business model, right? Billions and billions
of emails served. And the predictive value of any one email to a representative about
how their constituents feel in that district is null, zero, right? You talk to people on
the hill; they don't pay any attention to that. They just read the same press releases
the rest of us see and see who sent the most mail.
So, what started as digital activism is rapidly becoming crowd sourced PR. And that, that
I think is one of the risks of social networking by-by-by creating the idea that all valuable
activities are low cost activities, you know? You see these things go by on Facebook, you
know, shout outs for ending world hunger, or whatever and you think, you know, there's
a mismatch here between the effort being put in and the value being put out. So, one of
the things I, I, that, that I, was so striking to me about the Nisha Susan story, about the,
about the Mangalore story is that she used Facebook to gather the group, but then she
immediately moved to a very high cost signal.
I'm gonna buy a pair of underwear, I'm gonna deface it, I'm gonna buy a box to put it in
and I'm gonna put an address and a stamp on it. That takes a lot of effort compared to
filling out your name and a zip code and pressing submit. And I'm convinced that her move to
a high cost signal is one of the things that made the government pay attention. So, social
networks by providing a social graph that allow for a greatly heightened ability to
find one another and to coordinate, I think need, need to also start producing, or activists
like Susan need to add on as a layer the ability to send high cost signal when they're needed.
Because if all we get is billions of emails served and shout outs for ending world hunger,
we actually haven't done so much to, to change the political culture. Yeah.
>>Karen: Oh. Thanks very much, Clay, for coming today.
>>Clay: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me, it's great, it's great to see everybody