25 February 2011

Clay Shirky – Here comes everybody

Some quotes from Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.

On the complementarity between travel and communication tools (p. 194-5):

The  assumption that communications tools  are  (or will someday be)  a good substitute for travel assumes that people mainly gather together for utilitarian reasons of sharing infor­mation.  Companies  have  been  selling us  this  idea  since the invention of the telegraph, and AT&T's famous Picturephone, first launched at the  I964 World's Fair, was pitched as a way to reduce the need for travel. This  reduction did not happen, not in  1964  or ever.  If communication were a  substitute for travel, then the effects would have shown up by now, but they haven't.  In  1978  President  Carter  deregulated  the  airlines, causing travel  prices to  fall,  but telecommunications  stocks didn't  collapse;  they  rose.  Similarly,  i n  1984  Judge  Harold Greene broke  up AT&T,  leading to  a  rapid decrease  in long­ distance  phone  call  costs;  airline  customers  increased  that year.  Communication  and  travel  are  complements,  not  sub­stitutes.  Chris  Meyer,  a  globe-trotting  consultant  for  the Monitor Group, observes that "better communications make it  easier  for  me  to  keep  in  touch with the  office,  so  I  spend more time on the road, talking to clients."

We  gather  together  because  we  like  to,  and  because  it  is useful. Assuming that videophones or e-mail or virtual reality will  reduce the  overall  amount of travel  is like  assuming that liquor stores will kill bars, since liquor stores  sell drinks much more cheaply than bars do.  In fact, the reason people go to bars is not simply to get a drink, but to do so in a convivial environ­ment.  Similarly,  cities don't exist just because people have had to be nearby to communicate; cities  exist because people like to be near other people, and it is this fact, rather than the mere trading of information, that creates social capital.

Social capital: bonding and bridging (p. 222; 224):

Bonding capital is an increase in the depth of connections  and trust within a relatively homogenous  group;  bridging  capital  is  an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups. Think of  the  difference  by  considering  the  number  of people  to whom you'd lend money without asking when  they'd pay you back. An increase in bridging capital would increase the num­ber  of people  you'd  lend  to;  an  increase  in  bonding  capital would  increase  the  amount  of money  you'd  lend  to  people already on the list.

Bonding  capital tends  to  be more exclusive  and bridging capital  more  inclusive.  In  Small  World  networks  bonding tends to happen within the clusters,  while bridging happens between clusters.

Where good ideas come from (p. 229-230):

In one of the  more  evocatively titled  papers  in the  history  of social  science,  "The  Social  Origins  of Good  I deas,"  Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago detailed his research into the relationship  among  social  capital,  social  structure,  and  good ideas. ...

The  essence of Burt's thesis  comes  down to a  linked pair of observations. First, most good ideas came from people who were bridging "structural holes," which is to say people whose immediate  social  network  included  employees  outside  their department.  Second, bridging these structural holes was valuable even when other variables, such as rank and age (both of which correlate for higher degrees of social connection), were controlled for.  Note that this  experiment was  a  test  for bridging  capital,  not  mere  sociability-the  highest  percentage  of good  ideas  came  from  people  whose  contacts  were  outside their  own  department.  On  the  other  hand,  managers  who were highly connected, but only to others in their department, had  ideas that were  not ranked as highly.  Bridging predicted good ideas; lack of bridging predicted bad ones.

In Burt's analysis, a dense social network of people in the same department (and who were therefore likely to be person­ ally  connected  to  one  another)  seemed  to  create  an  echo-chamber effect.

The effect of failure and the open-source model (p. 245-7):

The overall  effect  of failure  is  its  likelihood times  its  cost. Most  organizations  attempt  to  reduce  the  effect  of failure  by reducing its likelihood.  Imagine that you are  spearheading an effort for a firm that wants to become more innovative. You are given a list of promising but speculative ideas,  and you have to choose  some  subset  of them  for investment.  You thus have to guess  the  likelihood  of success or failure  for each  project. The obvious problem is that no one knows for certain what  will  succeed  and  what  will  fail.  A  less  obvious  but  potentially  more significant problem is that the possible value of various projects is  unconnected  to  anything  their  designers  say  about  them. ... In these circumstances, you will in­evitably  green-light  failures  and  pass  on potential  successes. Worse  still,  more  people  will  remember  you  saying  yes to  a failure  than  saying  no  to  a  radical  but  promising  idea.  Given this  asymmetry,  you will be pushed to make  safe choices, thus systematically undermining the rationale for trying to be more innovative in the  first place. ...

Open source  doesnt  reduce  the  likelihood  of failure,  it  reduces  the cost of failure; it essentially  gets  failure  for free. This reversal, where the cost of deciding what to try is higher than the cost of actually trying them,  is true of open systems generally. As with the  mass  amateurization  of media,  open  source  relies  on  the "publish-then-filter" pattern. In traditional organizations, trying anything  is  expensive,  even  if just in  staff time  to  discuss  the idea,  so  someone  must  make  some  attempt  to  filter  the  suc­cesses from the  failures  in advance.  In open  systems,  the cost of trying something is so low that handicapping the likelihood of success  is  often an unnecessary distraction.  Even  in a  firm committed to experimentation, considerable work goes  into re­ducing  the  likelihood  of failure. ...

Cheap  failure,  valuable  as it is on its  own,  is also  a  key part of a  more  complex advantage: the exploration of multi­ple  possibilities. ... When  a  company  or indeed any organization finds a strategy that works, the drive to  adopt it and stick with it is strong.  Even if there is a better strategy out  there,  finding  it  can  be prohibitively expensive. For  work  that  relies  on  newly  collapsed  transaction  costs, however,  providing basic resources  to the  groups  exploring the  fitness  landscape  costs  little,  and  the  failure  of even  a sizable  number  of groups  also  carries  little  penalty.

Bonus, in praise of scribes (p. 68-9):

In 1492, almost half a century after movable type appeared, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim, was  moved to launch  an  impassioned  defense  of the  scribal  tradition,  De Laude Scriptorum (literally "in praise of scribes").  In this work he laid out the values  and virtues of the scribal tradition: "The devout monk enjoys four particular benefits from writing: the time  that  is  precious  is  profitably spent;  his  understanding is enlightened as  he writes; his  heart within  is  kindled to  devotion;  and  after  this  life  he  is  rewarded with  a  unique  prize." Note  how  completely  the  benefits  of the  scribal  tradition  are presented  as  ones  enjoyed by  scribes  rather than by society.

The  Abbot's  position  would  have  been  mere  reactionary cant ("We must preserve the old order at any cost") but for one detail.  If,  in the year  1492, you'd written a treatise you wanted widely disseminated, what would you do? You'd have it printed, of course,  which  was  exactly  what  the  Abbot  did.  De  Laude Scriptorum was not itself copied by scribes; it was set in movable type,  in  order  to  get  a  lot of copies  out  cheaply  and  quickly­something for which scribes were utterly inadequate. The con­tent  of the Abbot's  book praised the  scribes,  while its  printed form damned them;  the  medium undermined the message.

There  is   an   instructive  hypocrisy  here.  A  professional often becomes a  gatekeeper,  by providing  a  necessary or  de­sirable  social  function  but  also  by  controlling  that  function. Sometimes this gatekeeping is explicitly enforced (only judges can  sentence  someone to  jail,  only doctors can perform  surgery)  but  sometimes  it  is  embedded  in  technology,  as  with scribes,   who   had   mastered   the   technology   of  writing. Considerable  effort  must  be  expended  toward  maintaining the discipline and structure of the profession. Scribes existed to increase the  spread of the written word, but when a better, nonscribal way of accomplishing the  same  task  came  along, the  Abbot  of Sponheim  stepped  in  to  argue that preserving the  scribes'  way  of life  was  more  important  than  fulfilling their mission by nonscribal means.

Professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in  ordinary  times,  become  a  disadvantage  in  revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession.  In most cases, those threats are also threats to  society;  we  do  not want  to  see  a  relaxing  of standards  for becoming a  surgeon or a  pilot.  But in some cases the change that  threatens  the  profession  benefits  society,  as  did  the spread of the printing press; even in these situations the professionals  can  be  relied  on  to  care  more  about  self-defense than  about  progress.  What was  once  a  service  has  become a bottleneck.  Most  organizations  believe  they  have  much more freedom of action and much more ability to shape their
future than they actually do,  and evidence that the ecosystem is changing in ways they can't control usually creates consid­erable  anxiety,  even  if the  change  is  good  for  society  as a whole.

Thanks, Anca!