You should definitely make time to read the entire two-part article. Clay covers a variety of topics such as literacy, media, generational shifts and the future of news/journalism. Some excerpts relevant to an enterprise environment below:
Interview with Clay Shirky, Part I:
RJ: What’s your response to people who say that all this information that’s out there, all this knowledge that we’re producing is great, and there’s all this access that we didn’t have before. But we also risk information overload alongside, and we don’t—
CS: Oh, those are the stupidest people in the entire debate because they, I mean, almost all of the people arguing that this is the Dark Ages are narcissists, because they’re essentially trying to preserve a particular piece of it. But the information overload people are the most narcissistic because information overload started in Alexandria, in the library of Alexandria, right? That was the first example where we have concrete archaeological evidence that there was more information in one place than one human being could deal with in one lifetime, which is almost the definition of information overload. And the first deep attempt to categorize knowledge so that you could subset; the first take on the information filtering problem appears in the library of Alexandria.
So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with del.icio.us, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do. But, you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that we’re just, you know, we just don’t understand what’s going on.
RJ: So, is this just a generational thing? That younger people have come up using these filters and these technologies and they love it and the older generation is just kind of scared?
CS: Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. I mean, the thing that people say about young people is just that they understand the technology so well. Well, I teach in a graduate program, I see twenty-five-year-olds all the time. They actually don’t understand the technology particularly well. I think I understand quite a lot of it quite a bit better than they do, which is the reason why I’m teaching there and they’re students. The advantage they have over me is that they don’t have to unlearn anything. They don’t have to unlearn the idea that a card catalog is a helpful thing to have. That you need a librarian to find things. That you have to figure out where you’re looking before you what you’re looking for. None of those things are true anymore. And so one of the problems that old people like me suffer from is just we know too many solutions for problems that no longer exist. And it kind of freaks us out to realize that all the things we mastered don’t really add up to much value anymore.
It’s not so much that young people are smart and old people are scared. It’s that young people don’t have to unlearn all the stuff that old people do have to unlearn if we want to understand this world. And unlearning is just about the least fun activity in the world. So, you know, it’s easy to understand why people don’t want to sign up for it. But it’s also kind of pathetic that the people going around talking about information overload don’t stop to factor in the idea that if the twenty-year-olds aren’t complaining about information overload, it probably isn’t the problem we think it is.
Interview with Clay Shirky, Part II:
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.