If you can't watch the video, here's a transcript.
But I'm not embedding it just because it's interesting. I also want to talk about what makes that speech so compelling, even if it doesn't really stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
Specifically, the part where Shirky says "Doing something is better that doing nothing." Aside from resting on the foundation of that old Calvinist saw about idle hands, he makes it easy on himself by comparing playing World of Warcraft to watching GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. But what if you're watching CITIZEN KANE instead? What if you're watching a documentary about the growth of fascism in Europe? Or one of those PBS specials about managing your money?
See, there's this long-standing cultural truism that TV is a waste of time, and oh my god, you won't get any argument from me. GILLIGAN'S ISLAND was just the most obvious example of shallow, brainless entertainment that completely controlled my childhood--other shows have been just as empty and repetitive without being nearly as popular.
It was rotten stuff and we all knew it, even as we sat down every evening and watched watched watched. Added to all those prime time crap shows were the even crappier afterschool and Saturday morning cartoons.
But books were different, we were told. TV was a passive experience, while books required effort. They had to be read. TV watching=discouraged. Reading=encouraged.
But reading a book is no effort at all. At least, it doesn't have to be, if you shop for them at the supermarket. With books, though, it's easier to find more challenging material.
Maybe Shirky would make finer distinctions if he had more than 16 minutes, but judging by what he says, he considers reading a book "consumption." Watching the video, I had a moment of "OMG! I'm going to be part of the one-way media conglomerate! I need to include a mouse with my book!" :)
I want to be clear that Shirky doesn't necessarily say old media--even TV--is evil and should be destroyed. I'm not interested in exaggerating his point. He makes it clear that he expects us all to still be watching TV, just not as much as in the past.
But his argument is less compelling if you compare "pretending to be an elf in WoW" to "reading books on current affairs by authors like Clay Shirky." That's what interests me: How a speaker can trigger swift acceptance of an argument (in me, at least) by aligning it with cultural truisms. And as a corollary, how I can avoid falling for this stuff.
In part I think it's related to the phenomenon I call My Favorite Argument--everyone has a set number of arguments they feel comfortable with, and they often try to change a discussion on a related subject into My Favorite Argument. Unhappy with the way a health care discussion is going? Bring up immigration. Feel left out of a nuanced argument about the health of small presses? Rail against PublishAmerica. Not up on the latest trends in urban fantasy? Start talking about the dividing line between sf and f.
Shirky's argument here is "It's better to do something than it is to do nothing." I would guess that, as a Web 2.0 enthusiast, it's one of his favorite topics. He has an appealing argument that pushes a lot of cultural buttons, and that's why I want to be wary of it.