Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Death of the 18th Century institution

I've been reading some Clay Shirky lately, here are some thoughts on the death of 18th century institutions

In the view of Shirky the term professional journalist has become problematic. This is because in the age of mechanical reproduction the line between the professional and amateur is blurred perhaps disappearing altogether. Does this democratize journalism, or reduce it? Or does it, as Shirky believes, transform our understanding of journalistic practice?

For me the democratization of information in ways that Wikipedia exemplifies challenges our assumption of management of information. This is to say, that individuals working together in a loosely defined community can produce works of great value with almost no need for old structures of management. Shriky points out that by its very structure, the company can not take this approach, inherent in the institution is a barrier to this kind of free collaboration. But Shirky is also right in stating that most companies are in the business of managing information. I think that in the future as information is viewed more and more as a public right, it places difficultly for businesses to keep proprietary information secret, and also more difficult for anybody anywhere to have any reasonable expectation of privacy.

I think this is an interesting way of thinking about the problem. Many people when talking about privacy make the mistake to place the blame on sites like facebook for eroding our private lives. I would argue that it is our democratization of information that challenges our implicit assumptions about privacy. Information is the key input in our lives and if we agree that everyone should have access to it and that it’s a good thing to recorded it all on the internet to further our human endeavors then we also agree to the “restructuring”, which is to say the elimination, of privacy as we know it.

Further more, I think that since more and more people are sharing information in a networked fashion, this presents a challenge to the structure of institutions in general. In an 18th century mindset, compulsory education at a centralized school made sense. The educational institution had access to the knowledge. This is the bottleneck that Shirky describes, but today this is not the case. Today most interesting learning happens outside the classroom. While every other part of life is interactive, from Internet to video games, education is not. We educate children to believe that education is not interactive and therefore not fun or stimulating. No wonder we have a dropout crisis. How have we not addressed this glaring problem? Why are we still clinging to an institution that no longer suits our needs or processes?

Additionally, our political institution is burdened by the same problems as nupeida. It too has a bottleneck, but I don’t think it understands why. Political leaders fancy themselves “experts” much in the same way the board of nupedia did. But, these “experts” are only self-defined, and in reality the declaration of such authority is meant to impose control. Wikipedia teaches us that a system of self-governing is possible without managers. This is not to say that there would not be errors or injustice if this idea was applied to government, but isn’t the point not to eliminate injustice but instead to quickly serve justice? And on this premise, I think we all can agree that our current institutions fail us.

As the world becomes more networked we cannot ignore that these institutions were created for a different time that had different needs and processes. If we are to further our society we must question the structure of an institutional system and its necessity in the modern age.

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