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Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program[…]

From U.S. elections to fishing markets in Kenya to baby names, Internet technology is changing our choices and behavior daily.

Question: How are we changing our choices because of the rnInternet?  
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Clay Shirky: I had a campaign years ago called “Give rnyour kid a GUID,” a Globally Unique ID, as they are called.  That kind rnof Google calculation about providing a unique or rare ID for you kid.  rnI’ve grown up with that, right?  People write me, are you the clay rnShirky I knew in high school.  Well, I can’t exactly say, no.  I mean, rnit’s an unusual enough name.  And that kind of... providing that kind ofrn legibility, the sociologists call it, for a society is a big rncalculation because everybody’s realized now, you can’t get the login rnnamed “Susan.”  Right?  It’s just you’re Susan1234567@AOL.com or you're rnSCrawford, or whatever.  But the awareness that these name spaces are rnall global all the time is, I think effecting how people think about thern world. 

rnThere is certainly, I mean, I think the biggest difference we’ve seen sorn far in calculations that involve the Internet come from people with rnsomething significantly public at stake.  Right?  There’s lots and lots rnof private changes around anything from, "I don’t need to own a cookbookrn because I can get recipes from the Internet," to Match.com will help mern find someone to date.  The public stuff, though, is quite remarkable.  rnIn particular, politicians after the Trent Lott defenestration and afterrn the "macaca" moment in Virginia, have seen that saying one thing to onern group and another thing to another group can be a career-ending moment.rn And as a result, for I believe for the first time in American history, rnpoliticians are on message all the time, and that message is always rnnational.  The upside of this is there’s a little bit less of the rnpreaching trade barriers in Michigan and open borders in Florida kind ofrn stuff—depending on whether you’re import or export driven, you know, rntalking about import or export driven parts of the U.S. economy—but the rndown side to that is we know less about what a politician thinks when rnthey get into office than if there had been lots of different rnenvironments they’d been talking in.  I was delighted when Obama won, rnI’d given him money, I voted for him, but at the same time I was a rnlittle dismayed that the hope and change message was so dominant and so rnuniversally adhered to that... that the rhetoric that he used, he'd rncorrectly assessed, had to work for every voter all the time wherever hern was, but it meant that we knew less of him than we would have, I think,rn in an earlier campaign, even though that was the winning strategy. 

rnQuestion:
How is the Internet affecting business in emerging rnmarkets?
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Clay Shirky: I teach a class—I’m down at the Interactive rnTelecommunications Program at NYU—and I teach a class in partnership rnwith UNICEF.  And one of the interesting things about thinking about rnaccess on mobile phones, is you take a lot of web design principles, rnright?  The idea of two-way data-driven social communications and you rnend up repurposing them for the simplest possible devices, right?  SMS rnback and forth with mobile phones.  And in many cases, you get really rnastonishing bits of value, like the Fisherman’s Marketplace in Kenya, rnright?  Fishermen coming off the ocean can SMS ahead and figure out rnwhich port has the best price for the fish they currently have.  All yourn need for that is SMS.  This is fantastic.  All of the M-Pesa mobile rnbanking stuff coming out of Africa, again designed to work with the rnsimplest possible phones. 
 
On the other hand, the kind of rnrich, face-oriented, social interactions that we’ve all gotten used to rnfrom the Web get attenuated on the mobile phone.  And so, I think the rnquestion becomes, and it’s still an open question, which of the design rnprinciples that were pioneered on the Web were pioneered because we had rnan open system—but now once we got those principles we can move that to rnanything?  And the closer it gets to being market-oriented or rntransactional, the easier it is to make it appear on the phone.  And rnwhich of those things only work on a web-like interface, or on a PC-likern interface with you know, a really visible large-scale screen, camera, rnetc., etc.  The separation of the PC and the phone is now ending, right,rn as netbooks, iPads, iPhones converge on not a single point, but on the rnrange that covers the difference between sitting in front of a large rnscreen at home and carrying around tiny screen on your phone.  And one rnof the great design challenges in the next five years is essentially rnfigure out, at what point along that scale do you have to say, "I can’t rnsqueeze a Web site down any further.  I have to custom," versus "It’s rnactually the social interaction pattern I care about; it will work on rnany device."
 
So Facebook squeezes down to the phone less well rnthan Twitter for the obvious reasons, and mobile banking and payment rnsystems squeeze down to the phone—n fact, they’re kind of born to be on rnthe phone.  It’s not even a question of squeezing—work on the phone rnbeautifully and don’t really get much benefit from being on the Web. 
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And so rather than being in the lumpy world we were in ’95, here’s rnyour computer, bang!  Here’s your phone, it’s crappy and can hardly hearrn anything.  There’s nothing in between.  Now we’ve got this whole range rnbetween the biggest and smallest devices.  What we don’t yet know is rnwhere there are real break points and where it’s just a spectrum.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown