Clay Shirky: scarily clever

Clay Shirky is scarily clever. This is a guy who in 1995 found the internet and pretty quickly wrote an article titled “The Price of Information has fallen and it can’t get up“:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

And why?

Remember the law of supply and demand? While there are many economic conditions which defy this old saw, its basic precepts are worth remembering. Prices rise when demand outstrips supply, even if both are falling. Prices fall when supply outstrips demand, even if both are rising. This second state describes the network perfectly, since the Web is growing even faster than the number of new users.

I wish I could have foreseen that in 1995. Or perhaps I just would have gone and hidden under a desk. The implications for content businesses are scary.

And now we come to a more recent interview, with the Columbia Journalism Review – that’s the full text there, so set yourself some time aside.

It touches on many points, such as that “there’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure”, and that if you thought the internet has pitched us into a world where nobody reads long-form content, you’re wrong; TV did that, 30 or 40 years ago.

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

Maybe Shirky deals with that. After all, he’s a clever guy.


  1. I had an odd thought yesterday, as I was driving to Southam. I was listening to the utter drivel on Five Live, occasionally shouting back at the radio, when all of a sudden, I thought: Why are you listening to this? It struck me that I was terrified of boredom. When I get on a train, I immediately whip out my DS, or switch on the iPod, often before the train has left the station. I don’t give myself a chance to get bored, it’s “quick, look at this, do this, whatever…” And it struck me, in the couple of seconds after I turned off the whittering idiots arguing on Radio 5, too stupid to realise you can’t outsmart a Devil’s Advocate, that I’d not heard silence for a long, long time. So I enjoyed, just that. It was completely brilliant. I felt so refreshed by the time I arrived. Technology is brilliant as a distraction – Internet on the G1 all the time, catching up on TV shows when we’re not in front of a TV – but I think we’ve forgotten what it’s like to simply do stuff which doesn’t require batteries. Is that the same thing? Kind of. Just thought I’d share it with you.

  2. No, I don’t think it is just you. Everyone I know seems to be having to work much harder than ever before. Now, some of this is due to the fact that a lot of places chop staff and the remainder have to pick up all the work (Work smarter, not harder – yeah,right), but beyond this there seems to be a lot more work. Is it just that everything is so obsessively monitored and measured that there is less time to just slack off for a bit? Quality Assurance is often a curse. And of course we are now all Human Resources rather than Personnel so are just numbers.

    It would be nice to have the time to sit quietly doing nothing in silence.

  3. The only reason I still have room for any thought in my life is that I never really let TV into it. Through the accident of being brought up largely abroad, in countries which either had no TV or very little in any language that I spoke, I never had regular access to it until I was about 16, and then didn’t have any for most of my twenties either. So I stayed with long-form thought, more or less. And I notice that it really cuts me off from the world. I don’t mind. Indeed I like it. But the internet or the interactive web is just as destructive. If I don’t take holidays from it I can feel my mind shallowing and drying up.

    As for the hard work; I don’t think the rich work harder now than they did. One thing that has happened is that a lot of formerly middle class professions have become industrialised and de-skilled. Ours among them. Another is that globalisation now means that we have to work as hard as foreigners in competing jobs. But there are certainly figures to show that eg American workers have grown by some measures steadily poorer since the 1970s. It’s really hard to work out why this should coincide with a hugely decreased demand for physical labour — remember life before hoovers, washing machines, second cars?

  4. There’s something ironic about talking about the end of long-form content while linking to a 3,300 word interview.

  5. @Simon Bryon You might be interested in a piece I wrote called Orwell’s Sound of Silence:

    According to Orwell (writing in the 1940s):

    “In very many English homes the radio is literally never turned off, though it is manipulated from time to time so as to make sure that only light music will come out of it. I know people who will keep the radio playing all through a meal and at the same time continue talking just loudly enough for the voices and the music to cancel out. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent, while the chatter of voices stops one from listening attentively to the music and thus prevents the onset of that dreaded thing, thought.”

    The “background noise” has clearly increased since Orwell’s day – so perhaps no wonder the ability to think clearly is getting more difficult.

  6. Thanks for pointing that out, Andrew; really interesting. I’m a touch naive when it comes to Orwell – the novels, as mentioned, are the extent of my knowledge. I have made a resolution to expand that. Thank you.

  7. But, Ian, consider how few places publish 3300 word interviews any more. When I was first doing journalism in the early 1990s, I did 3500 word interviews for PCW. After a year or so, the length was cut to 2500 (probably reasonably in most cases). These days, I do an interviews column for The Inquirer, and the assigned length is 650 words – on the Web, where there’s all that infinite space. And since I have a lot of latitude to pick the interviewees, most of them have a lot more to say than the guys I was interviewing in the early 1990s, most of whom were picked because they ran the UK subsidiaries of very large US companies. At this point, there aren’t many publications that will do really long, thoughtful pieces – the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, NY Times magazine, CJR, Wired maybe. Charles is merely proving the rule by pointing out the exception.


  8. You’re completely right – and it’s exhausting. Anyone starting out in media is assaulted with a barrage of Stuff You Always Need To Do just to qualify for work experience, including intimate familiarity with the myriad ways of producing information. Some days you just want to hide under a duvet with a torch and a good book.

  9. You have point. There are so many technologies now and ways of communicating that to be on top of your game you have to adapt to all of them which then leaves you busier trying to get on top of them all. So no better lifestyle just busier. IMO

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