Author Topic: Clay Shirky - institutions vs. collaboration  (Read 656 times)

Captain Utopia

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Clay Shirky - institutions vs. collaboration
« on: July 20, 2010, 03:16:50 pm »
An old talk, but still relevant, lightly edited partial transcript below:

Flickr is a photo-sharing service that allows people to take photos, upload them, share them over the Web and so forth.  Recently, Flickr has added an additional function called tagging - a cooperative infrastructure answer to classification. If I had given this talk last year, I couldn't do what I just did, because I couldn't have found those photos.  But instead of saying, we need to hire a professional class of librarians to organize these photos once they're uploaded, Flickr simply turned over to the users the ability to characterize the photos.

When you build cooperation into the infrastructure, which is the Flickr answer, you can leave the people where they are and you take the problem to the individuals rather than moving the individuals to the problem. You arrange the coordination in the group, and by doing that you get the same outcome without the institutional difficulties. You lose the institutional imperative. You lose the right to shape people's work when it's volunteer effort, but you also shed the institutional cost, which gives you greater flexibility.

And the tension here is between institution as enabler and institution as obstacle.  Institutions hate being told they're obstacles.  One of the first things that happens when you institutionalize a problem is that the first goal of the institution immediately shifts from whatever the nominal goal was to self preservation.  So when institutions are told they are obstacles, and that there are other ways of coordinating the value, they go through something a little bit like the Kubler-Ross stages of reaction, being told you have a fatal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance.  Most of the cooperative systems we've seen haven't been around long enough to have gotten to the acceptance phase.

Many, many institutions are still in denial, but we're seeing recently a lot of both anger and bargaining. There's a wonderful small example going on right now.  In France, a bus company is suing people for forming a carpool, because the fact that they have coordinated themselves to create cooperative value is depriving them of revenue.

Steve Ballmer, now CEO of Microsoft, was criticizing Linux a couple of years ago, and he said, oh, this business of thousands of programmers contributing to Linux, this is a myth.  We've looked at who's contributed to Linux, and most of the patches have been produced by programmers who've only done one thing.  And you can see why, from Ballmer's point of view, that's a bad idea, right?  We hired this programmer, he came in, he drank our Cokes and played Foosball for three years and he had one idea.  What if it was a security patch?  What if it was a security patch for a buffer overflow exploit, of which Windows has not some -- several?  Do you want that patch, right?  The fact that a single programmer can, without having to move into a professional relation to an institution, improve Linux once and never be seen from again, should terrify Ballmer.  Because this kind of value is unreachable in classic institutional frameworks, but is part of cooperative systems of open-source software, of file sharing, of the Wikipedia.

Now, this is the part of the talk where I tell you what's going to come as a result of all of this, but I'm running out of time, which is good, because I don't know.  As with the printing press, if it's really a revolution, it doesn't take us from Point A to Point B. It takes us from Point A to chaos. The printing press precipitated 200 years of chaos, moving from a world where the Catholic Church was the sort of organizing political force to the Treaty of Westphalia, when we finally knew what the new unit was: the nation state.

Now, I'm not predicting 200 years of chaos as a result of this. 50. 50 years in which loosely coordinated groups are going to be given increasingly high leverage, and the more those groups forego traditional institutional imperatives -- like deciding in advance what's going to happen, or the profit motive -- the more leverage they'll get.  And institutions are going to come under an increasing degree of pressure, and the more rigidly managed, and the more they rely on information monopolies, the greater the pressure is going to be.  And that's going to happen one arena at a time, one institution at a time.  The forces are general, but the results are going to be specific.

And so the point here is not, "this is wonderful," or "we're going to see a transition from only institutions to only-cooperative framework."  It's going to be much more complicated than that.  But the point is that it's going to be a massive readjustment.  And since we can see it in advance and know it's coming, my argument is essentially we might as well get good at it.


What do you think?  Fifty years sounds like a pessimistic estimate to me.

MMIX

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Re: Clay Shirky - institutions vs. collaboration
« Reply #1 on: July 20, 2010, 03:34:34 pm »
Ist thought is that since we can see it in advance so can the institutional power-bases so while you are getting ready for a cooperative future they are marshalling their, not inconsiderable forces, to make sure that they still call the important shots.

Just as the spirit is invisible, so also is its language a secret, & sometimes you can't tell when it's being sarcastic.

KimKierkegaardashian @KimKierkegaard

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Re: Clay Shirky - institutions vs. collaboration
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2010, 04:13:42 am »

It's possible, and indeed some institutions (e.g. Governmental) have a near monopoly on the services they provide.  This makes it difficult for a random collaborative group to simply walk in and start replacing various functions without explicit cooperation from the institution.  The collaborative group has a harder task to prove their value - they can't just set up shop as with, say, Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica.

In fact, I expect some of the most interesting successes stories we'll be seeing will be from neither entirely institutional-based or collaborative-based organisations, but from the hybrids.  It's a new mutation in the organisational gene-pool, and it should be as interesting as it is unpredictable.

The TED talk video is worth a watch.  He ties everything into a narrative about power laws which is fascinating, but which I had to edit out of the extract above, rather than reproduce the entire transcript.