SXSW Interactive 2010: Clay Shirky Keynote Debrief
The title of NYU ITP professor and author Clay Shirky’s Sunday morning keynote was enough for a major draw: “Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data.”
And amusing as the title session was, the title was serious enough to jump up straight to the top of my personal SXSW Billboard charts for best session, because it was a session that got down beneath all the pixels, HTML code, and social media splatter to really focus on the underlying human motives that drive our behavior, in the digital realm and off.
After thanking the sleepy audience for “getting vertical so early” on a Sunday morning, Shirky explained his talk would be broken into three key segments:
Buses and Bibles, Monkeys and Balloons, and Lingerie and Garbage.
He started his talk explaining that oftentimes, our recommended approaches to solving problems is too simplistic. Congested traffic? Build more and bigger roads. Or provide better public transportation as a viable alternative.
But as in the case of PickupPal, a ride-sharing service in Ottawa, the inclination towards sharing (in this case, providing information for ride shares) existing code (in this case, laws) can conflict with the opportunity for efficiency (getting people from point A to B with limited utilization of petroleum and the roadway).
In other words, PickupPal was too efficient to be legal, and the Ottawans had to change the law to accommodate its excellent opportunity for efficiency.
This was really a fight about sharing, and how much efficiency could be allowed.
Gutenberg was another example. His original product was the selling of published indulgences, and the press was originated to enable the publishing of more indulgences faster and cheaper (as opposed to those published by handwritten scribes).
Soon, Gutenberg turned to publishing bibles and Martin Luthers’ Theses, and before you know it, the Protestant Reformation was in full bloom (and as a reaction, the scribes begin writing slower). By 1600, Catholicism was simply another religion.
Shirky’s point: Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.
When things are scarce, we know how to deal with them. When they’re abundant, the price goes away. Things we previously thought were scarce we don’t know how to price or value.
In this case, it was bad news for the scribes, and ultimately the medium destroyed the message.
Flash forward a few hundred years and enter Napster, the fastest growing software in history (in 1998-99). It garnered 70M+ users in a very short period of time, and it had not a trace of geekiness anywhere.
At the time, the crime rate had fallen to historic lows, and it was only the “theft” of recorded music via digital means that was a major issue. Shirky compared this to the sharing of primates, who had different modes of sharing for good, services, and information, the last being the most frictionless.
And in Napster’s case, all it had done was to take a world of music that had previously been constituted as a good or service (something you could buy), and instead turned it into one of information (something you could easily share with no real cost to you).
Here’s this song for so-and-so, put it online, and watch it take on a life of its own. Like monkeys, we have positive feelings about sharing information with one another – we’re biased to like doing so, which completely freaked the music industry out.
We do NOT voluntarily withhold information if sharing it made someone else happy, and this was the case with Napster.
We have positive feelings about sharing information with one another (like monkeys). We’re biased to like doing so, which freaked the music industry out. We didn’t voluntarily withhold information if sharing it made somebody else’s life easier, because the barriers to doing so were low and it we like helping others if it takes no greater effort on our part.
But in this case the music industry shocked and spiteful when we didn’t do what they wanted us to do (not share).
We didn’t voluntarily withhold information if sharing it made someone else’s life easier. The industry was shocked, spiteful, when we didn’t do what they wanted us to do.
Shirky then launched into the “Balloons” part of his talk, referring to the DARPA Big Red Balloon Challenge.
Last December DARPA said they would give away $50K to anyone who could identify the lat/long of ten large red balloons.
They figured it would take up to a month for someone to identify all ten. A team from MIT found them in about ten hours.
But to help with the find, there was a need to have a link to a spherical trigonometry formula that would help seekers with accounting for the earth’s spherical shape in their quest. Where did DARPA link to?
Wikipedia. Why? Because a link to the same article on the online Brittanica would have required registration, etc. Wikipedia was faster, cheaper, better. Wikipedia was all about sharing.
Finally, Shirky moved into the Lingerie and Garbage section, starting with references to “LOLcats” and the three wolfs howling at the moon t-shirt phenomenon, but ended up in some very serious situations around the globe, one where people have taken to sharing to create civic value and to help change the culture participants find themselves embedded in.
Places like PatientsLikeMe.Com, where patients who suffer from the same conditions come together to document their symptoms (and treatments) in excruciating detail.
Places like India, where females came together to challenge the extreme male Hindi power structure through online and offline activism, and who now speak with a common, group voice that India politicians can no longer ignore.
Places like Kenya, where in December 2007 the Ushahidi movement originated by Kenyan lawyer and blogger, Ory Okolloh, helped build an Internet mapping tool to allow people anonymously report violence via cellphonee, and which was able to collect testimony of incidences of such at lightning speed.
Ushahidi was also used recently to help out in the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.
Shirky suggested through these tales there has been great progress. Ten years ago, we couldn’t have even tried such things. Now, with these tools available, our motivation has swung to help one another.
Anything we formerly did in terms of intrinsic motivation was often with small groups. Now, we have the capability of doing revolutionary things on a much grander scale.
Moving ahead, the only question becomes, will we do them, or will we stand by and be paralyzed, as in Darfar, or Sarajevo, or other places around the globe?
Only time, and possibly a few revolutions, will tell.