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Rushes Sequences - Clay Shirky interview - USA (Video)

Clay Shirky teaches, consults and writes on the social and economic effects of the internet. The Digital Revolution Programme Two team met and interviewed Clay to discuss the phenomenal changes that have occurred to the world since the advent of the web. He discusses the difficulties of attaching terms such as 'democratisation' to the web, and the reduction of 'strong tie' relationships, as 'weak ties' increase.

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This is an interesting partner piece to some of the issues of knowledge elites and knowledge democracy, as discussed with Jimmy Wales. But it's also a fascinating examination of the changing nature of relationships; strong and weak ties, and the direct effects each might have on the other. Susan Greenfield asked a similar question in her Web at 20 speech - when we say we have 400 friends, what does that mean?

Are you a highly connected person with numerous followers and friends online? Do you feel you have your strong ties in a healthy balance with your weaker ones? Would your friends and family in meatspace agree with your answer?

Let us know in the comments below.

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Transcript:

Clay     The web's democratic in one way and distinctly un democratic in another way.  And I think a lot of the confusion about the political ramifications have to do with that one word having so many meanings.  So its democratic in that it quite literally delivers power to the people it, it essentially opens up participation in the publics mind.  So erm I erm I have been teaching at, at ITP, at the Interactive Telecommunications Programme for about 10 years, and the average age of my students has stayed pretty much the same erm my average age erm has risen at the alarming rate of about 1 year, 1 year per year.  And so I'm now, I'm in a position of teaching my own youth as ancient history, right I have to get my students to understand what the media landscape used to be like. And I tell them all kinds of stories about what it was like, and they nod politely and I think they believe me when I tell them these things, but I can tell they don't feel it.  And the thing they really don't feel is when I say that in the 20th Century, if you had something to say in public you couldn't, period, right, if you were a civilian, if you were a citizen but not a media professional, you could not broadcast a message, no matter how hard you tried.  In fact, people who went out of they're way to try to get messages out in public through amateur channels, like holding up signs on the street, or you know by the road side, were widely regarded as being kind of off they're rockers.  And that changed, that change is enormous, that anyone who wants to participate has at least the means to participate is a huge change.  

So in that sense of the world, democratic, the web has been this huge increase in part, the participatory logic of the media. If by democracy though you don't just mean engagement and participation and, and availability to be part of the public spirit, but you mean the contending of political ideas, in such a way that an outcome is reached and it balances the rights of the minority with the rights of the majority, the web is not democratic at all.  Because, the kind of democratic structures you need, things like, everybody gets to vote but each person only gets one vote, we can't even tell who anybody is.  So we have no way of saying, we can be sure we're being fair in counting votes right.  Erm we don't have official forms in which things are debated, and after some contentious period of bring the ideas to bare a decision is reached, and that decision is legitimated by the will of the people.  And so what you get in the web is all of the contending special interests that you expect in a democracy, but you don't get many of the mechanisms for defending the overall process our outcome from the special interests.  So the big, the big question around the Obama erm administration was will he govern like he, you know like he campaigned, will the, the Obama administration show the same zeal for public input and participation that the Obama campaign did.  So the day after the election they announce Change.Gov, right and they, they invite people in to tell the Obama administration what issues they should care about.  And number 1 issue, right it rises to the top of the charts, the thing that really in the middle of 2 wars and the biggest financial meltdown in, in 70 years, the thing the Obama administration should most focus on, is medical marijuana, right the ability of people to smoke marijuana in they're own homes for medical reasons ..............   And you think if, there's a not a poll you could have commissioned that answer.  The reasons that that was at the top of the list wasn't that that's what a majority of citizens wanted, rather it was because the people who wanted that thing, were the most organised and they were able to get they're message out to people who care about you know our absurd war on drugs, in order to push this, this issue to the top.  So, there's real signal there, right there's a group of people who care passionately about this issue, but its not the same as a vote, right, and that's, I think, the enormous tension we face right now, in the American context this this is a kind of a Madisonian moment, we, you know we wrote our constitution down, so we had a fairly different attitude towards, towards political discourse, I mean maybe you all will do it in the next couple of years.  But Madison was, was the great framer of the constitution, and he was the person who most worked out the idea that you can never get rid of special interest, you can never get rid of factualisation, in a way, democracy is for creating a playing field and a set of rules for factions to contend with too.  

So the web is really good at factualisation and special interests and empowering people that have incredibly loud arguments all hours of the day and night.  But it's not at all good at figure out, out of the massive signal that, that our unit generates what any unit should do.  And that's because that secondly isn't a technological problem, so the technologies enabled this, this incredible conversation, but the kinds of the kinds of tools that allow you to look at that conversation and say, this part we're going to take as advice for the Government, and that part we're going to regard as the conversation that lead to the advice, but we're not going to act, you know to decided between deliberation and decision.  You can't have a technological solution like that.  And we don't yet have the political overlay that says this newly broadened and crazily fractious public sphere is also going to become politically critical in ways that you know we accord to voting or jury duty or any of the other kinds of, of you know formal government mechanisms were used.

Intvr    Clay do you think the new generation growing up now actually thinks differently to sort of pre-internet generations?
 
Clay     I do think they think differently and the real question I think is, how much of that is normal human plasticity, right we all are really good at responding to opportunities.  And this young generation has different opportunities than, than my generation. Erm and how much of it is actually that they're brains are being wired differently because of exposure to the media and environment they're being exposed to.  Erm, the first category is, it's relatively easy to see examples of that.  And you know in the States right now because we're very good at moral panics, you know people my age, mid 40's and up, are ringing they're hands over what kids are doing, kids are doing on Facebook, as if we would not have done those things had Facebook existed when we were young.  And so we want to project this idea, well you know I wasn't putting drunk pictures of myself up on Facebook, its like yeah well no one gave us the chance.  But I remember us, I think we would done that in a heartbeat if Facebook had been around.  And so, rather than you know sitting around complaining about how young people have it better than us, which makes us look like old fogies, we decide instead that this is a threat to civilisation, and must be you know well, must be addressed at once in the highest halls of power.  Erm, that kind of, you know hypocrisy and lack of self-examination is always a last truth of you know of people my age and older.  Erm, the second question though is much more interesting, erm which is, when you grow up, expecting to be able to find information, at a moments notice, what does it do to your ability to internalise information. 

And you know the brain is very, very plastic, very malleable, but at a certain point it does get wired up, and it gets wired up in a particular way.  And so I look at my son who's 8, erm and he asked me, my wife, when Michael Jackson passed away, my wife muttered something at the breakfast table about him being a criminal.  And erm my son later asked me right is that, was that true, and I said well no, erm the dilemma of explaining the difference between accusation and proof and so forth were, were going along, along in this conversation and I say essentially no one, no one does, right there, there were these questions, nothing was every proved.  And he looked at me and he said not even Wikipedia.  And I realised he'd never asked a question before, because he tends to be in the domain effects, what's the fastest train dad, I've no idea but Wikipedia do, what's the tallest building, I don't know look it up on Wikipedia.  And suddenly he comes up to a question that's entirely interpretive, and, and he clearly his worldview is a little bit shaken because he, you know there had never been a question he couldn't, couldn't answer before. And so you wonder how much of his relationship to the factual is being shaped by the idea that you, you don't need to guess or estimate or remember if you can get your hands on a keyboard, you can find out right then.  So that's, that's you know that's what I'm saying the, the much more momentous question for society I think is this.  Erm, we've long known, from sociological work on the way we live our lives, that we have there's inverse correlation between the number of friends we have and the death of that friendship.  So somebody who lives in a city can have hundreds of people they call friends, somebody who lives in a small town can have dozens of people they call friends. But for both of those people there's fewer than half a dozen people you'd give a kidney too.  So you have strong ties, which are this tight core, and you've got weak ties, which can be small or large depending on where you live.  Well, the web is like everybody lives in London right, the web is like everybody has access to this enormous pool of people, inexhaustibly large and diverse pool of people, and as a result, you know on Facebook, on Twitter on My Space, on Bebo, etc, etc, people have the experience of having thousands of friends.  Well no one really has thousands of friends, its, its, its either the word thousands or the word friends has to be struck out for that, for that sentence to make any sense.  

So its, its evident to everybody that the web has been this incredible amplifier of weak ties, right we have many, many more connections, people we knew, you know from high school or from college that we haven't seen in years but somehow we're linked to in this way.  What we don't know is what that's doing to ............ and there has been early research to suggest in, in a way kind of alarmingly, that there really is a trade off, you can't just amplify the number of weak ties without decreasing either the number or the depth of strong ties you might ................  And if that's true, that's a big change, because it's nice to have people where you can say oh hey I'm coming out to San Jose want to get together for coffee or whatever.  Erm, but its really nice to have somebody who'd loan you a kidney if you needed one.  And if we're amping up the former at the expense of the latter that's a really big change in erm in the way human society works or can work.  Erm, more generally, we're doing what we always do when we get enormously increased freedom.  Which is a bunch of stuff that we used to get for free, because just the environment was constrained, we're now starting to have to in place, right we're starting to have to plan for it.  So if we're in a world where our social wiring just isn't used to a world where you can have thousands of weak ties at the expense of the people you most care about, erm we're starting to have to have, as an act of discipline, erm doing the kinds of things that just weren't even possibilities before.  

When my wife and I were courting, right we only used e-mail to say I'll meet you at such and such a place at such and such a time.  I'd had relationships, sometimes long relationships which you know the, the e-mail back and forth the kind of carefully constructed e-mail back and forth was the big part of the relationship.  And, I think it ultimately damaged the face to face stuff, and so when I met the, you know woman I later married who, you know who became, became the mother of my children, I early on, I thought, oh I don't want to screw this one up, and we only used e-mail to co-ordinate, because I thought if too much of this relationship goes in to the network we may never be able to get it back out again.  And that was a place where it just took a certain amount of, of discipline and decision making, there never used to be an easy way to do that, you can occasionally get epistolary in a relationship some of them, erm you know deeply literary far separated people, but ju, you know somebody you were dating who lived across town, the idea that most of your communication would be written never really an issue.  Erm, for most of us, and now it is, and I think we're going to have to learn as habits, a lot of things that we used to get just as a side effect of life being inconvenient in ways it no longer is.

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