I’ve Found Another Prophet of the Internet Revolution!

After going around and around and around in February about the future of the comics and Scott McCloud, it’s perhaps ironic that I may be adding his chief foil in the micropayment wars, Clay Shirky, to my RSS reader.

I may have mentioned this before, but I’m astounded at the changes the Internet is wreaking on society – and has wreaked on it, in the span of one or two decades. I believe computers and the Internet may combine to become an invention with more impact on society than television or just about any other major invention of the 20th century. The Agricultural Revolution led to the birth of civilization; the Industrial Revolution led to a rapid expansion of civilization and its capacity to make lives better; now the Digital Revolution could result in another transformation of civilization and an expansion of the human mind. It’s an invention on par with fire, the wheel, the assembly line, for its potential to revolutionize humanity – I’m not even kidding.

In a recent blog post on the future of newspapers, Shirky focuses on one such comparison in particular: the printing press.

(Before I go on, scroll down to the bottom to the comments section. It may not seem that surprising that the post has over 600 comments – after all, Shirky is reasonably popular, certainly more so than I am, for his musings on the Internet… until you realize that Shirky doesn’t even allow comments, which means that every single one of those “comments” is a trackback from another site. Over 600 different sites linking to one post.)

There’s been a lot of going back and forth on how to Save Newspapers in the face of recession and the Internet, whether it’s by imposing a paywall like Newsday’s doing, shutting down the presses and going all-digital like the Seattle P-I, or moving to micropayments like Walter Isaacson proposed semi-recently, and in the process preserving the valuable journalistic functions the newspaper provides. Shirky’s thesis is that the newspaper is out of date, an artifact of the economic paradigm created by print, and its functions need to be adapted to the new paradigm of the web.

Shirky takes us back to when print was just getting started and chaos was erupting and questions were being asked over such things as vernacular Bibles, popular versions of ancient thinkers, and other such things. He identifies a trend of experiments turning out in retrospect to be big turning points, be it the birth of small, portable books or Craigslist. For Shirky, old paradigms getting disrupted without anything to take its place for a while is a natural part of any revolution like the Internet. McCloud painted the newspaper comic strip as a marriage of convenience between the medium of comics and the industry of newspapers; Shirky paints the newspaper itself as a marriage of convenience between advertisers, publishers, and journalists. Advertisers have more outlets now, and the publishing industry itself is out of date. That means a rather dim near future for journalism: the answer to the question “what happens to journalism when newspapers die?” is,

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

To Shirky, newspapers are about to die, and it may take a few decades of experiments to arrive on a new model for journalism going forward, and it probably won’t end up being one patch to fill every function once filled by the newspaper, but several.

Shirky, it appears, shares my vision of the Internet as a revolutionary technology that will serve as the major differentiating force and theme of the third millenium AD. He realizes that we live in an important transitional age, one that will irrevocably change American and world culture for years, even centuries, to come. Things we do now will have impact many, many years down the road. He’s definitely someone I’ll want to refer to while I write my book on the internet revolution.

Actually, screw that. Writing a book on the magnitude I want to write is a pretty massive undertaking, and I don’t know if publishers or agents would be willing to take a chance with someone of my age and lack of experience. If I need a co-writer, or if I’m unable to write the book at all, Shirky would seem to be an ideal choice to write it instead (or as well).

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