Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University and is the author, most recently, of Here Comes Everybody, about how new means of communication are changing the social environment. CJR’s Russ Juskalian recently spoke with Shirky about knowledge, the Internet, and why we shouldn’t worry about information overload. The first part of the interview can be found here.
Russ Juskalian: Well, this kind of brings me to something. We’ve heard all the consequences of what will happen because of information overload or attention spans. But, when you were talking about the last couple of things, I started wondering. Can you think of any of the consequences that would come about as a result of trying to stem the so-called information overload, or trying to slow down all of these things as they come?
Clay Shirky: So, there’s two different possibilities here. Stemming the information overload is this ridiculous Luddite fantasy of somehow, you know, making all those bloggers shut up so that there’s not so much stuff to read. You know, going back to the day when one could have said that you had read or watched the news, as if there was exactly one hour of news per day. I mean it’s just, you know… even, as an experiment, if you said “I’m going to only read the RSS feeds of news sources that existed prior to 1990,” you would still be drowning in it, because you can get to every English language newspaper in the world. So even if you just dealt with the fact that all this production is now global—forget any new entrants, forget amateurs at all—access to professional information is now so far in excess of what it was in 1990 that you still have that problem. So I don’t think that there are any rollbacks.
What I do think is potentially quite interesting is all of the work on filtering that says a big part of the value of information is actually downstream from its production. I would like to be reading or talking about what my friends are reading or talking about, or my colleagues are reading or talking about, or my competitors are reading or talking about. And this rise of social filtering—there’s an interesting phenomenon in the university world, where the number of papers jointly published by two or more researchers working in different institutions is on the rise. And it’s on the rise because it’s very… sitting at your desk, it’s almost easier to figure out, “Who else [in the world] is working on what I’m working on?” than to figure out, “What are my colleagues down the hall working on that isn’t like what I’m working on?” And that idea of information weakening the walls of the institution seems to me to be really beneficial for cross-disciplinary work. I mean, I think the fact that many of the people doing behavioral economics are psychologists is indicative of the kind of cross-disciplinary work we can potentially hope for in the future. So, I think that one of the ways to get around this filter failure problem is—you know, I refuse to use the term ‘information overload’ for obvious reasons—is to start deploying these social filters that assume that at least part of why I want to read or look at something is to be able to have valuable thoughts or conversations in tandem with other people.
And I think that when we start to see those kinds of conversational groups form in the kind of salon culture, particularly in university communities, we will see a potential transformation not of just whole academic institutions but also individual disciplines, where the econo-physics people, the behavioral economics people, and the neo-classical economics people are all now having a conversation that cannot be resolved with reference to only one of those three disciplines. And that potential for saying, “You know what, we’re going to give up on any idea that one can have read the ‘relevant literature’ now,” because a lot of that was just artificial barriers around the filter. And, instead, we’re going to say, “I’m reading the literature that’s keeping the conversation I’m having kind of the most interesting it can be.” That seems to me a potential way out of the current filter failure problem.
RJ: What do you make of all this with regard to the news?