In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky makes the case that new social technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with each other, which in turn has had a profound impact on our ability to collaborate and take collective action. Shirky argues that as technologies such as email, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. have lowered the cost of communication, it has democratized communication so that any individual can both consume and create content. By removing the barriers to communication, it has also made it easier to organize, coordinate, and manage groups of people, which are then able to take on more and more complex tasks without needing formal institutional support from a organization. This has allowed loose affiliations of people who may have never met before take on massive undertakings together, like create a living encyclopedia or start revolutions.
On these points, I believe Shirkey is right. Social tools have dramatically lowered the cost to form groups and use those groups to do complex work. However, while Shirky pays lip service to the corresponding social changes that must occur to take full advantage of these technological advances, I think he underestimates the importance of the social and cultural context in which these tools can be applied, which has a bearing how quickly and successfully different fields will see transformation as a result. Shirky acknowledges that social changes and changes in behavior are important (and in fact are the outcome ultimately desired), but that these social changes often lag technological changes. He points out that until the social changes catch up to the technology, there is likely to be chaos in the system as norms, rules, processes, behaviors, and attitudes are renegotiated. But the length and level of chaos and the degree of change which occurs is likely to be very dependent on the context of the specific field.
In more complex fields, with many interrelations and interdependencies, these tools are likely to cause behavioral and social shifts with many and far-reaching unintended consequences. Justin Reich has a great article about this particular point in the context of education; because of the complexity of the education system, new learning technology can introduce all sorts of unintended consequences that are extremely difficult to predict and could have ramifications far into the future. These unintended consequences will likely prolong the chaos in the transition from the old institutions to the new equilibrium.
Aside from complexity, it’s also important to factor in the importance of technical expertise to the quality of the output. In fields where the reliance on technical expertise is high, these new tools may have a more difficult time gaining traction both because of an assumption and a reality that mass amateurization doesn’t produce an acceptable quality level. In thinking about education, online learning tools and courses have been heralded as a revolution in education. And it’s true that we can now access TED Talks, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and all sorts of other content objects that can help us gain new knowledge. However, we also know a lot about what it takes from a pedagogical perspective about how to most effectively ensure that learning happens and that it sticks…and it’s hard. The majority of learning content developed by the mass of amateurs certainly doesn’t reflect that understanding of pedagogy. Over time, as we come to realize that much of the user-generated content in education does not actually provide the quality of learning that we hope for, the resistance to social and behavioral change may increase, making it less likely that the technological change will stick in a meaningful way.
As Audrey Watters notes, we have become obsessed with the myth of disruptive innovation (particularly in education), in which the old is destroyed and the new is adopted. However, Ithere are specific contextual factors in education that may impede, or at least slow dramatically, the adoption of the new. While Shirky has certainly made his case that social technologies are changing the way that we communicate and collaborate, we should remember that the pace of true institutional change in education is likely to be slow.