Meet Our Advisers: Clay Shirky

Our final adviser, Clay Shirky, needs no introduction, but we’ll do so anyway. Clay has done more than any other public intellectual to explain the social and political effects of digital technology and to reveal its transformative possibilities. He is an influential author, teacher, and speaker, who has published Here Comes Everybody (2008) and Cognitive Surplus (2010). This year he is taking a hiatus from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program to be the Edward R. Murrow Lecturer at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The Meta-Activism Project seeks to better understand the phenomenon of digital activism not in order to define its inherent nature, but in order to make meaningful interventions to increase its effectiveness. We are not technological determinists, we are activists. We seek to understand so we can be more effective agents of change.

Clay embodies this practical idealism, seeking to better understand the present in order to build a better future. His boundless and iconoclastic creativity will push us to think in new ways and his critical mind will push us to think more rigorously. We are truly lucky to have him.

The Problem with Digital Activism Debate

I’d like to call attention to the disturbing mistreatment of two of the most important intellectuals in the field of digital activism: Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. I know Evgeny better than I know Clay, but both seem like nice guys who are honestly trying to quantify the effects of the Internet on political power and activism around the world. So why are they constantly being put into the ring and asked to fight each other? I refer not only to their recent debate on Edge.org, but also to the multiple round bout in Prospect magazine a few months ago.

Scholar/activist Patrick Meier has already called for an end to the violence, bemoaning the preponderance of “anecdotal ping-pong” and “rapid-fire debate” over rigorous analysis of comparable claims. Even Clay Shirky seems to be a bit tired of the entertaining yet inconclusive debate between optimists and pessimists in the field. He begins the Edge.org debate by saying, “Evgeny, I think this may be a frustrating hour.”

Though I have heard neither Clay nor Evgeny express this publicly, I also would not be surprised if they are a little bit annoyed by how this optimist/pessimist debate pidgeon-holes them as intellectuals and thus also paints their ideas with the damning brush of bias. Instead of agreeing to these public cage matches, I wish Evgeny and Clay would both focus on an area they agree on:

“We are currently facing a huge intellectual void with the regards to the Internet’s impact on global politics…. We do need a new theory to guide us through all of this, for old theories are no good. ”
-Evgeny Morozov

“Yes, I agree with that.”
-Clay Shirky

Since both agree that there is little foundational knowledge in the field of digital activism, I wish they would join the effort for rigorous analysis and provable claims. While it might be less entertaining than an unwinnable battle of wits, it would be of more value to digital activists. Both Clay and Evgeny have great rhetorical and intellectual gifts, and to use them for Crossfire-style political theater is a disservice to the field they both claim to have an interest in building.

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