Will the iPod, BlackBerry Rewrite History?

Fancy gadgets such as the iPod and BlackBerry mobile phone are doing more than just keeping people plugged in to the latest technology. They're also seen as tools that could change history. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without Organization, describes the phenomenon.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Quick, look in your handbag or your glove compartment of your backpack. What do you have in there? Cell phone, an iPod, maybe a BlackBerry? Do you ever think about they way they've changed your life? Probably not, unless you were stuck at the airport without one.

It certainly feels like we've had them around forever. But as Clay Shirky points out in his new book "Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing without Organization," these relatively new tools are allowing us to do a lot more than call home and write to friends. They are actually changing history, everything from reversing legislation to tracking down criminal offenders. It may just be the next big thing. Clay Shirky joins us down to talk about this. Welcome.

Mr. CLAY SHIRKY (Author, "Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing without Organization"): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: What made you think of this?

Mr. SHIRKY: Well, you know, it was really back in the early '90s when I first started using the Internet. And my mother, who is a reference librarian, had told me about this thing they were studying in library school. And she said, it's like a great big electronic library.

So, I got Internet access and went on - this is prior to the Web, and I realized it isn't just like a library. It's not just that there is data there. There is a lot of people there, and they're all interacting with one another in strange ways. So really, for 15 years the social effects of this thing have been my main focus.

What made me try and write it down in this book, as opposed to writing for the sort of technical audiences I've been writing for, is the sense that the technology itself had finally gotten boring enough that the social effects were getting interesting, that everybody was starting to see it in their daily lives. Not as some kind of whiz, bang, this is the future thing, but just, you know, as you were saying, about what's in your purse or your pocket or whatever. Just as a kind of daily aspect of our lives, we're all plugged into this social grid in ways we didn't used to be.

MARTIN: The book starts with this amazing anecdote. The chapter is called "It Takes A Village to Find a Phone." Tell me that story.

Mr. SHIRKY: Sure. About two years ago, a woman named Yvonne(ph) lost a phone in the back of a New York City taxi cab. This happens all the time. In her case, unfortunately, she - it was her upcoming wedding, she had a lot of the details for the wedding, the guest list, the caterer's phone numbers and so forth. So she really wanted the phone back.

So she went to a friend of hers, Evan Guttman(ph) and said, send an email to the phone and whoever has it will see that there is a reward. So they send this email, they don't hear anything back. Three days later she shells out another 300 bucks and gets a new phone. It's one of these numbers with the screen and the camera on it and so forth. And when she gets her new phone, her phone company says, hey, do you want us to give all your old data back? Right, we've got it all on our servers, and she says, yes, absolutely.

So when she gets the phone back with that data, she has not only everything she put on it, she had everything that Sasha(ph), this 16-year-old girl in Queens had been doing with the phone in the last four days. Taking pictures of herself, her friends, posting things to MySpace, and she suddenly plugged into this other girl's life. And so...

MARTIN: So she realized who had her phone and you just do the logical thing and you ask for the phone back. Sasha, rather rudely, we have to say, says no, but Yvonne doesn't leave it there. In fact, she has a friend Evan who decides to get involved and help her get her phone back. What does he do? You think Even wouldn't go get three big guys and go to Sasha's house, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHIRKY: Right, exactly, I mean, Evan is in the IT set so physical violence doesn't come naturally to our - to sort of our tribe. What does come naturally to our tribe is using the network.

So what Evan does is he takes all of this girl's information, including these photos of her, and puts it up online. And says essentially, a grave injustice is being done. My friend's phone was stolen, we know who's got it now, we've asked her to give it back and she won't give it back.

And this is one of the things that just sparked the imagination, right? People started forwarding it around. It made the front page of Dig, which is a new site that gets over a million viewers. And suddenly, Even has this enormous audience watching as he's posting, in some cases, hour-by-hour updates about his attempts to get the phone back.

And what was really incredible is that the audience wasn't just listening to Evan, reading Even as he was talking about these things. They were talking back. In some cases, they were offering legal advice. And one case, a New York city police detective said, you guys are getting a raw deal.

MARTIN: Because this phone was in fact stolen. Somebody's got your property, you know they have it, there's things that should be done about it.

Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly, exactly right.

MARTIN: And walks him through the process. You know, I'm tempted to leave it as a cliffhanger what happened...

Mr. SHIRKY: Very good.

MARTIN: I don't know whether that would be mean.

Mr. SHIRKY: No, no, but I think - the point, I think, is that by getting all of these readers and then turning them into an active part of the story, Even was able to act in a way that nobody could have even five years ago.

MARTIN: And I think when people first hear this story they're tempted to say to themselves, well, these are privileged people, right? They've got the time to do this and they have the knowledge to do this. This is specialized knowledge. Everybody doesn't know how to do this. I want to play you a short clip from an interview we did several months ago that I thought of after I read your book, where somebody without all those resources decided to get involved in something that he read about that bothered him. It was a young woman in Texas who was being held in a juvenile facility. Many people thought that the circumstances were unfair. Let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. FRAZLER POPE(ph) (Engineer): I would say immediately after I read the article I went over to Facebook, which I log onto regularly, and just decided to create a group and a lot of people felt the same way I did and the group grew like wildfire.

MARTIN: When you say it grew like wildfire, tell me.

Mr. POPE: I created the group when I received the email, which was approximately three weeks ago, and as of last night, there was about 6,700 members ranging from high school, college and alumni members.

MARTIN: What did you hope would happen as a result of your creating this Facebook page about Shikwanda's(ph) case? Are you hoping for some specific outcome?

Mr. POPE: I want an awareness first and foremost. I feel that if people knew about the situation there'd be more people involved to help Ms. Cotton(ph) see that day sooner where her daughter could be released.

MARTIN: That was Frazler Pope. He's an engineer who created a Facebook page to draw attention to the case of a girl named Shikwanda Cotton in a little town in Texas. Sure enough, I don't know if you follow this case. What happened was a whole investigation of the Texas juvenile facilities was launched as a result of public interest. Could this have happened ten years ago? And I actually want to point out, he never met this family before.

Mr. SHIRKY: It could have happened ten years ago, but only if it had been done by the professional media, right? But ten years ago there was no way for an individual to do what he did, and the thing he said, grew like wildfire, that's the signal of something that is available to the general public now that hasn't been available before.

I teach at a graduate school and my students are now - the gap between - the age gap between me and my students is now enough that I have to teach my own youth as ancient history.

MARTIN: Which is annoying, isn't it?

Mr. SHIRKY: It is annoying, but, you know, whatever.

MARTIN: How did the people we were young with get so old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHIRKY: Yeah. I know it's really - it's a little daunting. But the hardest thing to explain to my students about life prior to the Internet was that back really, as recently ago as the nineties, for the average citizen, if you had something to say in public you couldn't. Period. Media was what we didn't have access to. And in the Shikwanda case, right, the media came not from being filtered through the professional press but just by someone who had an interest and was able to do something that tapped a much wider sense of injustice, right? And that was impossible ten years ago.

MARTIN: Well, in that case it was actually both. It was a small piece in a regional paper that got picked up, which is one of the other fascinating things, is the way the mainstream media so-called, or the edited media speaks to...

Mr. SHIRKY: The edited media. That's beautiful.

MARTIN: Speaks to and through this whatever you want to call it, sort of citizen media. The other thing you talk about in the book are "flash mobs." Tell us about that.

Mr. SHIRKY: Well, flash mobs are sort of the flagpole sitting of 2003. Right? They were this phenomenon where a group of people would all get an email that would, say, synchronize watches and all show up at the same place and time and do something sort of surprising. So a hundred people show in Central Park and sit on a stone ledge making pigeon noises or whatever. And they'd been pushed by Bill from New York, who turned out to be Bill Wasik of Harper's Magazine, and one of the points he was trying to make was how brain-dead hipster culture was, right?

That if you told people that what you were going to be doing was going to be mildly shocking to the general public, right, they'd put aside any sense of judgment they had and do any damn fool thing you put in a piece of email. So this thing spread, right, people copy the flash mob pattern and it goes to San Fran, it goes to Canada, it goes to London, and then in 2006 it ended up in Belarus. Right, somebody puts up a LiveJournal page, a weblog page that says, hey let's have a flash mob. Let's all go to downtown Minsk and we'll walk around October Square eating ice cream.

So these pictures go up, as they always do after a flash mob, of these kids walking around eating ice cream. But unusually in the history of flash mobs, in this series of pictures there are a set of pictures of black-clad secret police dragging those kids violently out of the square. Because the problem with the group eating ice cream wasn't the ice cream, it was the group, right? It's illegal to act in concert in October Square because Lukashenko, the dictator, had stolen the election earlier in 2006 and in wanting to forestall public protest had simply said you can't act in concert.

And so we have this example of not merely an apolitical forum in its, you know, sort of making pigeon noises in Central Park model, but is actually as, you know, as Bill from New York wanted it to be, it's kind of making fun of group action. By the time it gets to Belarus it's been transformed into being a real political tool.

In high freedom environments like ours, new tools for group activity often get used for entertainment, right? But in low freedom environments, in places where really just getting together in a group and taking action at all is political, a lot of these tools matter enormously in ways that we don't see in the United States.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Clay Shirky. He's author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations." You know, there's this ongoing debate about whether the desire for freedom is just human. Is it something that's within us or do there have to be sort of predicates to that before you even have a desire for freedom? Has your thought about technology and the way technology's affected our lives affected your thinking about this?

Mr. SHIRKY: Absolutely. I used to be sort of in the techno-determinist school, as it were, which is that you could tell what affect the technology had, if you know what it does. And what I've seen, especially observing social technologies, is if you don't understand the context in which it's operating, you can't understand the effect it's going to have.

I think that everybody wants freedom in really kind of direct and literal senses around their own lives. I think the difficulty is essentially building up all those little units of freedom-loving individuals into a political system like a democracy. That's an incredibly fraught and long-term process. You can't take a group where each citizen craves freedom and suddenly say, now you're a democracy overnight and have it work.

But in terms of freedom from tyranny, we've never seen a tyrannical government unaffected by these tools, right? When people start to be aware that everybody else feels the same way they do and that they could coordinate their reaction, right, it just gets much harder to hold it down. No one is invested more in kind of massaging the bargain between, you know, a growing economy and political repression than the Chinese. And no one wants any issue to come to the surface less on the world stage than the Chinese do around Tibet, and yet the Tibetan protestors have been phenomenally successful in using these tools to create a global movement that doesn't have global coordination. Suddenly the Chinese are trying to tamp down a global protest movement that doesn't have a head, and that's a really big change.

MARTIN: But are there ways in which this technology can also be used as an arm of the state? I mean, I'm thinking about how in East Germany, everybody under communism was an informer. I mean, couldn't it go the other way, that everybody's cell phone is used to inform on everybody else?

Mr. SHIRKY: Absolutely. So right now the big bargain is basically plug in or don't plug in, right? There are not a lot of subtle ways for the state to do what the East Germans did. So you have, for example, Ethiopia just shutting off SMS because it's just too good as a coordinating tool. The real risk is that with progressive investment, and frankly, participation by American companies like Yahoo, who betrayed a Chinese dissident, that we will get to a world where there is very granular, very fine control over what information flows over the network and what doesn't.

MARTIN: SMS being a text message.

Mr. SHIRKY: Right. In terms of a political stance, being pro-free flow of information right now is probably going to have a bigger effect on whether the world becomes more democratic in the next ten years or not.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. Can you project ahead to the degree - I mean, obviously, if you could project that far ahead you'd probably have your own private island and you wouldn't be talking to me.

Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly right. I'd be out playing the stock market.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You wouldn't be talking to me, although I'd like to think you would.

Mr. SHIRKY: No. I'd be happy to talk to you under any - even when I'm a billionaire.

MARTIN: Thank you. But casting forward over the next ten years, do you think our lives will be as radically altered ten years from now as they have been in the last ten years, and in what direction?

Mr. SHIRKY: I think the really radical change is going to be around the economics that currently make the Linux operating system or Wikipedia work, where people are getting together and creating things of enormous and long-lasting value for one another without financial motivations guiding their work.

And I think the transformation is going to be in part that people are going to come to start to take for granted infrastructure as being, you know, basically big pieces of value in their lives that aren't created by businesses or the government. That's a big deal.

MARTIN: This year we've been covering the presidential election pretty closely, as you might imagine.

Mr. SHIRKY: Yes.

MARTIN: And you know, we've been talking about how the candidates are facing both the challenge and an opportunity that really didn't exist before. The kind of, what do you want to call it, citizen-generated media?

Mr. SHIRKY: Citizen-generated media is a fine term.

MARTIN: Like these pro-Obama videos and the songs and sort of things of that sort. And as you pointed out, a lot of this has been - it's just very entertaining right now, but do you think in the end that this will change the process?

Mr. SHIRKY: Oh, I think it's changed the process already in two ways. First, to the media point you're talking about, Obama is the first platform candidate, by which I mean, like a computer you buy, it gives you a set of capabilities but then people build on top of them. What's been most surprising to me about the Obama campaign is that there has been all kinds of media from the original 1984 video to "Obama Girl" videos, the Will.I.Am thing, and yet, it's been very different from one another but it's all been on message.

The thought that people all over the country could create media essentially saying, this is why, in one way or another, you should vote for this guy, without being guided by a PR agency, that's not supposed to be able to happen. So right away he's got that wind in his seams.

MARTIN: But the Internet hasn't been completely Obama's friend. I mean, this whole flack about his pastor Jeremiah Wright has been fueled by snippets of sermons on YouTube and people have formed impressions by a very tiny slice of an experience. At least that's from, you know, the Obama perspective - and that's been damaging to him.

Mr. SHIRKY: Sure. No question. These kinds of freedoms always increase the range of what happens, right? So it's not completely good news for everybody but it's - you know, it's a question of knowing how to use the medium, even accepting, right, that there are also these new kinds of challenges. But not only did Obama, I think, rise to that challenge quite brilliantly, but the knock-on effect of the spread of that message by users forwarding it to one another, that's a really different effect and that's happening much more for Obama's speeches than it is for Clinton's.

MARTIN: So what do you have in your backpack?

Mr. SHIRKY: Well, I have a Verizon LG camera phone and a little iPod, one of the shuffles, and a MacBook, and I think that's all I've got on me right now. So just - I'm down to three CPUs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're down to three! Great!

Mr. SHIRKY: But, you know, I mean, in a way, this is the big deal. That this stuff - it becomes socially interesting when it's technologically boring, right? We all take it for granted, but compared to the desert of connectivity we lived in even a dozen years ago, that's a really radical change.

MARTIN: Clay Shirky writes about the social and economic effects of the Internet. His new book is "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization," and he joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. SHIRKY: Thanks so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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