How we collaborate has profound implications for how we live and work. The author and New York University professor Clay Shirkey explains how social media has upended traditional norms.
From the invention of the printing press to the telephone, the radio, and the Internet, the ways people collaborate change frequently, and the effects of those changes often reverberate through generations. In this video interview, Clay Shirky, author, New York University professor, and leading thinker on the impact of social media, explains the disruptive impact of technology on how people live and work—and on the economics of what we make and consume. This interview was conducted by McKinsey Global Institute partner Michael Chui, and an edited transcript of Shirky’s remarks follows.
Interview transcript (extended video available at web site)
Sharing changes everything
The thing I’ve always looked at, because it is long-term disruptive, is changes in the way people collaborate. Because in the history of particularly the Western world, when communications tools come along and they change how people can contact each other, how they can share information, how they can find each other—we’re talking about the printing press, or the telephone, or the radio, or what have you—the changes that are left in the wake of those new technologies often span generations.
The printing press was a sustaining technology for the scientific revolution, the spread of newspapers, the spread of democracy, just on down the list. So the thing I always watch out for, when any source of disruption comes along, when anything that’s going to upset the old order comes along, is I look for what the collaborative penumbra is.
For instance, around MakerBot, which I was on the board of back when it was an independent company, most of the company, for the obvious reason, was focused on the possibilities of 3-D printing and the output of 3-D printers. But the thing I was most interested in was Thingiverse, which is the website where people were sharing and talking about their objects.
And you could see these things happening where somebody uploaded a little model for a radio-controlled, 3-D printed shell for a little radio-controlled car. And they said, “Here’s this thing. It looks great. There’s only one problem: It doesn’t work, because it’s too heavy. But I’m uploading it anyway.” And then other people who were good at figuring out, “Well, you can take the weight out here and there,” turned it into something workable. No one person made that radio-controlled shell.
So the collaborative penumbra around 3-D printing is a place where you don’t have to have someone who can do everything—from having the idea to making the mesh to printing it. You can start having division of labor. So you’ve got all of these small groups that are just working together like studios and still able to play on a world stage.
And all the way at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got these collaborative environments where almost no one has to coordinate with anybody else. When I upload something to Thingiverse, or I make an edit on Wikipedia, it’s not like I need anybody else’s help or permission. So the collaborative range is expanding. The tight groups have more resources, and the loose groups can be much more loosely coordinated and operate at a much larger scale. And I think the people who think about collaboration want to know what’s happening to it, and the answer is everything.