What Happens When People Migrate To The Internet?

The penetration of the Internet into our lives has sparked fears about privacy, and the perils of having so much information freely available. Others believe the Internet is a force that harnesses individual altruism and creates broader social good. Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus, talks to Deborah Amos about what happens when people migrate to the Internet.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The writer Clay Shirky has been monitoring the free time we have in our lives. And over the past several decades, he says we've spent a lot of that time doing just one thing.

Professor CLAY SHIRKY (New York University): Television became essentially and unpaid halftime job for every man, woman and child in the developed world, right, 25 hours a week or so, times a couple billion people.

INSKEEP: New research shows the Internet is eating up more and more of our TV watching time.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Clay Shirky writes about this sea change in his new book, "Cognitive Surplus."

Prof. SHIRKY: A cognitive surplus is my phrase for the cumulative time and talents of the network world, because we're all networked together. We can share things. We can take on projects larger than what one person can do in their basement. And so the cognitive surplus is the reason we have, you know, billions of photos on Flickr and 24 hours a day of video being uploaded every minute on YouTube. It's the reason we have Wikipedia and open-source software.

The amount of time and talent we have to swing to shared problems and civic action is incredibly vast.

AMOS: But there's also a lot of cute kitty sites on the Web.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIRKY: It is fueled by cute cats, yes.

AMOS: And, in fact, I can waste just as much time looking at cute kitty sites as I ever could watching sitcoms. So whats the balance?

Prof. SHIRKY: Right. But the interesting thing about lolcats, about these cute cats made cuter with the application of cute captions, is that when you see a lolcat, you get a second message which is: You can play this game, too. All right, when you see something on television, the message is: You could not do this, you can only consume this.

There is a giant gulf between doing something and doing nothing. And someone who makes a lolcat and uploads it - even if only to crack their friends up -has already crossed that chasm to doing something. Thats the sea change, and you can see it even with the cute cats.

AMOS: And I see it in a very nice anecdote that you have in your book about a little girl who's watching a video, and she gets up off the couch and she goes to back of the TV. And her father thinks, oh, she wants to see the characters and see where they are. But what she's looking for is the mouse. It's inconceivable to this 4-year-old that you can have television that you can't interact with.

Prof. SHIRKY: I mean, you see this with kids. I see this with my kids all the time. Theyll see a screen out in public and they go up and they touch it, because they assume that it's going to respond to them. People who are used to those opportunities will both look for them when they're young, but Im also imagining, will design around them when they're older. When they come to start making media, they're going to start assuming that other people will have some kind of input, as well.

AMOS: There's always a list of losses...

Prof. SHIRKY: Yes.

AMOS: ...that accompanies any new technology. And there is a cottage industry of hand-wringers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIRKY: More than a cottage industry. Let me tell you.

AMOS: And let me give them their voice - one is vanishing attention span, deep reading is gone, social polarization.

Prof. SHIRKY: Right. The social polarization one is, in my mind, the most interesting. Cass Sunstein kicked this off with Republic.com and the worry about the echo chamber. Whats so interesting now though about the echo chamber is that the political movement in the United States that is in a way most consistently creating an environment where the opinions are internally consistent and resistant to dialogue, is the Tea Party. And yet, the Tea Party is characterized by the people who grew up in the old media landscape.

The Tea Party is one of the few protest movements in the U.S. not driven by teenagers and people in their early 20's.

AMOS: But I am told that they wouldnt exist without an Internet way...

Prof. SHIRKY: Oh, no. of course, everybody...

AMOS: ...to meet up.

Prof. SHIRKY: Everybody uses the Internet all the time, even the hand-wringers use the Internet. The interesting thing to me about the echo chamber argument is that it actually seems to have been a description not of the Internet, but rather of the world of three television stations and one local newspaper -which is to say the media landscape of the 20th century, with its incredible paucity of sources, created more of an echo chamber than what we're seeing today.

AMOS: You document some important social networks. There's one in Kenya that mapped information like election violence. And it actually helped people stay away from places that they could get hurt. There's a Web site called PatientsLikeMe, where people share their symptoms and actually improve care for patients.

When you look on balance at this evolving landscape, do you see more PatientsLikeMe than lolcats, in a way that you can tell which way it's going?

Prof. SHIRKY: Well, I dont believe there's a which-way question - we dont actually have to choose. We can have both lolcats, or the cute cats, and we can have PatientsLikeMe.

Let me bring out Harvey Swados, who's an American novelist. And I quote him in the book, who said in the middle of last century - you know, are paperback books going to flood the market with trash or are they going to mean that we have access to the classics? And the answer to that question, of course, was: why pick? Right? The abundance of paperback books meant we could have all of both.

So I dont think there's a tradeoff between how many lolcats and how PatientsLikeMe sites are there. I think the tradeoff is how well are we going to support things like PatientsLikeMe, which are trying to transform medical research culture?

So the thing we need to be concentrating is finding the people who are going after creating civic value and helping them, regardless of the entertainment value of the cute cats.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Prof. SHIRKY: Thank you.

AMOS: Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. His new book is called "Cognitive Surplus."

INSKEEP: Well, of course, we reached out to Facebook and Twitter to find out what you had to say about your cognitive surplus.

AMOS: One comment came from Greg Coulter(ph): When I write anything or take pictures or make movies, it's almost with the intent of posting it on the Internet.

INSKEEP: Cathy Swink(ph) writes that the Internet has inspired her to get more creative in the kitchen.

AMOS: She says TV cooking shows are too slow for her taste and they dont offer tips and tweaks from others.

INSKEEP: Pete Mortonson(ph) says the Internet has made him more, quote, "fake productive."

(Soundbite of music)

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