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Gopnik Versus Shirky on the Promise of Technology

In discussing the latest books on technology, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik derides Clay Shirky’s utopian views as “history taken from the back of a cereal box.”

Adam Gopnik takes no prisoners in surveying the latest technology books in The New Yorker this week. For one thing, Gopnik discovers that, paradoxically, all these new books amount to “a series of books explaining why books no longer matter.” And from this “ever expanding literature” Gopnik delineates three types, to which he gives the following funny-sounding names: Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. He writes:

“The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened…The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.”

Gopnik places N.Y.U. professor Clay Shirky and his book “Cognitive Surplus” squarely in the ranks of the Never-Betters, due to Shirky’s belief in “an ever-surging wave of democratized information.” And Gopnik is not a fan of this, casting a critical eye on Shirky’s writing to expose what he sees as an underlying flaw: “There is an element of overdone provocation in his stuff (So people aren’t reading Tolstoy? Well, Tolstoy sucks) that suggests something a little nervous going on underneath.”

As for what is happening underneath, Gopnik derides the work of writers like Shirky as the “Wired version of Whig history,” or worse, it is history “taken from the back of a cereal box.” Gopnik is taking explicit aim at what he sees as overzealous utopianism. He writes: “The idea, for instance, that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth.”

Is Gopnik being fair? You be the judge. Here is Shirky in his own words, explaining his notion of “cognitive surplus.”


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