Here Comes Everybody

I’ve begun working on Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky (btw – currently 96 cents on Amazon new; if you have Amazon Prime or are ordering $25 of other stuff, it is free shipping!).  An interesting contrast to The Cult of the Amateur. Less of a jeremiad and more of a discussion of the reason things happen. Shirky argues that organizations arose out of a need to have some sort of hierarchical structure to coordinate the complexity of large groups. Such organization is not without cost (there are transaction costs; we can refer to this as beauracracy if we like). But if the increased efficiency of the organization outweighs the transaction costs, it is worth doing. Eventually organizations become too complex to function well. Incremental decreases in these transaction costs allow organizations to grow larger, etc. 

But what happens when the costs don’t decrease incrementally but are almost eliminated? That’s what happens with lots of modern technologies – the internet offers virtually free publishing, email offers virtually free communication, and so on. At least two outcomes follow: 1) some things that were not possible or worth doing either informally or in organizations before these innovations now become possible (e.g., photo sharing) and 2) mass disruption as areas where there were previously professional scarcity become open to lots more people (e.g., journalism, publishing, etc.; he effectively uses the example of scribes in the period shortly after the invention of the printing press as an historical parallel). This last point is a point of contact with The Cult of the Amateur from yesterday. Shirky is probably more balanced – he notes that Adam Smith had observed that water was more important to life than gold, but scarcity made gold more valuable. So, some things are no longer as valuable as they used to be. That’s just the way it is, for both good and ill.

Though I’ve got a ways to go, this is in many ways a more thought provoking book – engaging the social implications of these changes directly. I’m already thinking about how this affects (or might affect) education. There are several possible areas to explore:

1) Mass publication and communication means that education as mere information dispersal will lose a significant part of its value. Already, one can see lectures or get course materials by professors for free (here’s one example and another) and there are plenty of people who will be glad to share their knowledge simply for the recognition (even if they are not the #1 expert, for many areas, their knowledge will probably be sufficient for most. And even for those who want credentialing, community colleges, online colleges and other likely new models will do it more cheaply and efficiently (not to mention CLEP). Traditional schools with their heavy cost factors who seek to compete on these grounds may have problems. 

2) The value teachers can bring are skills in mentoring, tutoring, evaluating, and so on – the personal touch. This will especially be true in areas where methods and disciplines need to be learned through some sort of hands on work. I’ve begun to shift my theology courses more to research skills already; it seems we have to rethink much of what we do. Teachers with strong interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt to the needs of specific students will likely be valued; schools that highlight interaction with faculty, experiential learning, and community will be able to continue to charge premium prices. Whatever it is, schools will need to provide something beyond just course notes.

3) I’m not sure what the implications will be for research institutions. Will schools that don’t really emphasize quality of instruction or student classroom experience be able to thrive? Courses that are delivered in mass lectures of several hundred, followed by an exam could conceivably be delivered by the best lecturer in the country to 100,000 college freshmen. What would happen to the rest of the lecturers?

There are probably more implications; I’ll think some more on it as I read the rest.

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