Shirky on the Silly Stuff vs Science Gap

A friend and I took an hour to hear Clay Shirky speak at the Monitor Group last night, curious to learn more about some of the intellectual territory plowed in his latest book, “Cognitive Surplus.” [Disclaimer: though a colleague shared the book, I've yet to crack it].

Couple of key points he raised before I get to mine: first is that the book is centered on one of the big opportunities opened by the web and connected devices, which is for massive coordinated voluntary action. Second is that there’s this “gap” between the billions of hours Americans spend watching television, and the time spent contributing to efforts like wikipedia (its huge according to Clay’s back of the envelope sketch). Third, scientific production has historically lagged the production of silly stuff – erotica, for example – when new communication technologies hit the social landscape.

This third point caught my attention. Is it really true that it took the scientific ‘community’ of Europe 150 years or so to ‘catch up’ to whimsical uses of the printing press? My gut says something else was afoot, something along the lines of ‘enlightenment.’

When Gutenberg famously cranked out his first editions of the Bible in the 1440s, moveable type presses had existed elsewhere for hundreds of years. Europe itself was just coming out of from under the blanket of medieval ‘dark ages’ with a nascent ‘renaissance’ of reasoned inquiry rooted in the Enlightenment ideals of autonomy, reason, and progress.

One might go so far as to say there was not much of an independent scientific ‘community’ as we know it to speak of in 1450.

What did exist was a powerful church establishment that governed culture and society, and in particular the field of natural philosophy that comprised the core of Christian ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ inquiry at the time. The printing press would have been enormously disruptive to this scrivere culture whose dominant feature was a monastic tradition that transmitted knowledge through manuscripts.

So the idea that stands out for me is not that its just a matter of time before culture adopts a technology, gets through its ‘kid in a candy shoppe’ reaction, and settles into nobler pursuits. Rather, much more complex social and cultural disruptions and reconfigurations may be at play – knowledge itself is contested, is being reformulated - hobbling its effective coherence, communication, and application.

Just a thought.

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