I am reading two excellent (and related) books by two talented authors: Lawrence Lessig‘s Free Culture and Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody. They both belong to a relatively recent genre of writing which attempts to explain the impact of the Internet on society. Other recent examples include David Weinberger‘s Everything is Miscellaneous, Jonathan Zittrain‘s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and John Palfrey‘s Born Digital. (The Berkman Center for Internet and Society has such a monopoly over research and publishing related to the internet that Leonard Tow was sufficiently annoyed so as to endow two new net research centers.)
The essential building blocks of these books are anecdotes. The authors choose a collection of ten to twenty stories which illustrate how the Internet has affected publishing, privacy, organizational structures, categorization, and even knowledge. They then refer back to those anecdotes as they wax eloquently about how the Internet is disrupting old models and how it will likely continue to do so in the future.
I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the printed book as a place to discuss the Internet. On the one hand, countless revisions and copyeditors means that, compared to the blog posts these books are based on, their readability is much improved. I am also frequently grateful that I am not distracted by appealing hyperlinks or urgent emails flashing on my screen. But just as often, I do want to click on those links – especially when I feel the author is giving a shallow interpretation of a particular online debate or saga. I also want to be able to leave comments when I disagree with or have something to add to what he writes (they are, so far, all male authors). There is an irony in celebrating the interactivity and directness of the Internet in such a completely non-interactive and gate-keeped medium as the printed book. (Clay Shirky notes that in 1492, almost half a century after movable type appeared, Johannes Trithemius wrote an impassioned defense of the scribal tradition, which ironically depended on movable type to distribute his plea as widely as possible. Shirky, however does not acknowledge that he is relying on movable type to distribute his evangelization of the interactive internet.)
But what really fascinates me about this new genre of books is that there seems to be an unwritten code of ethics which says that once one author uses a particular anecdote, no one else should use the same antecdote. In this way anecdotes become proprietary. Clay Shirky becomes the ‘owner’ of the StolenSidekick anecdote and Lawrence Lessig somehow ‘owns’ the story of Just Think!, a media literacy project for youth in San Francisco. Whoever is able to put into print the most authoritative version of some anecdote is then seemingly ‘licensed’ to use that anecdote in their articles, speaking appearances, and consulting gigs. The anecdotes themselves, of course, are a form of digital folklore which belong to no one and everyone. But when they enter the economy of speaking gigs, book contracts, freelance articles, and research fellowships, they take on a real value which benefits only a handful of people. (Myself included.)
Right now at least three of my friends are in the process of writing books that belong to this same genre. Cyrus is finishing up work on a book that looks at the Internet’s impact in Iran, Senegal, Estonia, and South Korea. Evgeny, on an OSI fellowship, is writing a book on “on how the Internet influences civic engagement and regime stability in countries such as China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela.” (as
is has Antony Lowenstein). And Ethan is writing a book that will likely be along the same lines. They are all friends and I’m curious as to how they will negotiate the use of anecdotes. I am also curious to see when more women and more authors from the developing world will publish popular books about the Internet’s impact. And, finally, what happens when we have more books than we do anecdotes?