The Future Belongs to You

How evolution actually works.

Here’s some timely insight from NYU prof Clay Shirky. The following excerpt is from his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations:

In 1501, Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, published a translation of Virgil’s works. There was nothing particularly unusual about this——by the early 1500s, there were many publishers offering versions of classic texts to an intellectually hungry audience. What was new about Manutius’s Virgil was its dimensions——the so-called octavo size was designed to be small enough to fit in a gentleman’s saddlebags, so as to make important parts of his library transportable. This was a small revolution, literally and figuratively——small in the sense that the book had shrunk in size and cost, and small in that it was less significant than Gutenberg’s original innovation. Yet the octavo size mattered, because it helped spread the written word. By making books cheaper and more portable, Manutius made them more desirable, which in turn meant more copies were produced and more experiments with printing were undertaken. In an echo of the salacious nature of many early experiments with content in other media, another of Manutius’s volumes, Hypnerotomachia, was a contemporary novel with erotic passages, a departure from simply translating the classics——and from the contemporary standards of literary proprietary. Although the material in Hypnerotomachia was certainly less momentous than his editions of Virgil or the Greeks, it helped create a market for new fiction.

Manutius’s principal insight was to assume, rightly, that the printing press was here to stay. Rather than lamenting the influence of the press, or continually marveling at its usefulness, he took it on himself to make improvements that seem obvious in retrospect but which were at the time small revolutions extending the big revolution of movable type.

The lesson from Manutius’s life is that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. One of the reasons many of the stories in this book seem to be populated with young people is that those of us born before 1980 remember a time before any tools supported group communication well. For us, no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in new kinds of technology, it will always have a certain provisional quality. Those of us with considerable real-world experience are often at an advantage relative to young people, who are comparative novices in the way the world works. The mistakes that novices make come from a lack of experience. They overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But in terms of revolution, the experienced among us make the opposite mistake. When a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad.

Like Aldus Manutius, young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do. I’m old enough to know a lot of things just from life experience. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that music comes from stores. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that complicated things like software and encyclopedias have to be created by professionals. In the last fifteen years, I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because they have stopped being true. I’ve become like the grown-ups arguing in my local paper about calculators; just as it took them a long time to realize that calculators were never going away, those of us old enough to remember a time before social tools became widely available are constantly playing catch-up. Meanwhile my students, many of whom are fifteen years younger than I am, don’t have to unlearn those things, because they never had to learn them in the first place.

The advantage of youth, however, is relative, not absolute. Just as everyone eventually came to treat the calculator as a ubiquitous and invisible tool, we are all coming to take our social tools for granted as well. Our social tools are dramatically improving our ability to share, cooperate, and act together. As everyone from working biologists to angry air passengers adopts those tools, it is leading to an epochal change.

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