The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.


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I have noticed lately that I have no hope in terms of the story I used to tell myself about society, but I have some small scraps of hope in terms of new stories.

When you grow up, you have to tell yourself stories about how your future will be. You have to put your actions into some kind of socially recognizable context.

Unfortunately, when you are living through a social crisis, you go into it with the old paradigm, and by the time you’re in the middle of it, you realize that the old paradigm stopped working a while ago and will not work again.

In 2009, a guy called Shirky wrote:

The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

I never planned to be a volunteer journalist. But bloggers prove that journalism can be a glamor occupation.

A glamor occupation is one that can continually recruit new underpaid workers by the emotional force of its social prestige, also known as “glamor.” Video game developers are overqualified, overworked, and underpaid, because video games are the most exciting industry in computer science for most people. Rock and roll musicians often work on their music for years, without any pay, and they feel guilty for not working enough. Rock and roll “garage bands” often rehearse even though they never get any public gigs.

Here is a truncated version of what Shirky wrote about journalism in March, 2009.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. [Note: Shirky was writing in March, 2009.] Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. …

When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Of course, Wikileaks might be the most exciting journalism of 2009, but very few bloggers are going to rise to the stature of Wikileaks. Muckraking journalism is hard, often surprisingly expensive, and almost always dangerous.

When Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden were growing up, I imagine they had to tell themselves stories about how their future would be.

Unfortunately, when you are living through a social crisis, you go into it with the old paradigm, and by the time you’re in the middle of it, you realize that the old paradigm stopped working a while ago and will not work again.

The young people who are going to be the next Assange and Manning and Snowden are growing up right now, and they are probably telling themselves stories based on what’s happening now to Assange and Manning and Snowden. They are going to have to make a lot of experiments.

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