Aula 2006 ─ Movement: Clay Shirky

Yesterday I explained what the Aula 2006 ─ Movement meeting next week in Helsinki is about. Today I would like to say a few words about Clay Shirky, the first speaker at the event.

NOTE: The Aula public meeting on Wednesday, June 14th, in Helsinki has been moved to a larger venue and registration is no longer required to attend. For details, go here.

Shirky_1Among many other things, Clay Shirky teaches New Media at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. For some years now, he has been at the forefront of thinking about the effects of new technologies on social interaction and coined the term “social software.” Among his many influential contributions to this field are “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality,” “Communities, Audiences, and Scale,” “Half the World,” “Situated Software,” and “Ontology is Overrated,” in which he makes this typically astute observation:

There are many ways to organize data: labels, lists, categories, taxonomies, ontologies. Of these, ontology — assertions about essence and relations among a group of items — seems to be the highest-order method of organization. Indeed, the predicted value of the Semantic Web assumes that ontological successes such as the Library of Congress’s classification scheme are easily replicable.

Those successes are not easily replicable. Ontology, far from being an ideal high-order tool, is a 300-year-old hack, now nearing the end of its useful life. The problem ontology solves is not how to organize ideas but how to organize things — the Library of Congress’s classification scheme exists not because concepts require consistent hierarchical placement, but because books do.

Earlier this year, Clay Shirky responded to John Brockman and Steven Pinker’s question “What is your dangerous idea?” at, with:

Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account.

…consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will — the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, — not “Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?” but “Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?” — patrons often say yes, despite having answered “No” moments before to an economically identical question.

Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works. By re-framing the question, fast food companies have found ways to take advantages of weaknesses in our analytical apparatus, weaknesses that are being documented daily in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology…

…in the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable.

One of Clay’s observations about the blogosphere in “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality” has been encapsulated by Hugh McLeod as what is sometimes referred to as “Shirky’s Law”:

Equality, fairness, opportunity: pick two.

Clay will be delivering a keynote talk entitled “Failure for Free” at the Aula 2006 Movement meeting. A complete list of his writings can be found here. Stay tuned for more.