Early in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Clay Shirky–an Internet scholar at New York University who also profitably shares his expertise with organizations like Nokia, Procter and Gamble, and News Corp.–reminds his readers that our moment of rapid, technology-abetted social change is not without historical precedent. The century-long “chaotic period” that followed the invention of movable type was even more confusing, he says. At one point, things got so weird that an abbot published a defense of the scribal tradition then being eclipsed by the printing press and, because he wanted it disseminated cheaply and efficiently, had it printed rather than having it copied by the scribes whose livelihoods he was defending.
What would the poor abbot say if he knew that much of what the good old printing press seems to be spitting out these days is books about the technology that ended books’ 400-year winning streak? Sure, the Internet has been inspiring dead-tree guides to optimizing its power while minimizing its dangers for almost as long as it has existed, but right now this section of the nonfiction shelf is glutted. From last year’s Send, which promised to guide n00bs (newbies, for you n00bs) through the niceties of e-mail correspondence, to Jonathan Zittrain’s warning about the dangers of “tethered appliances” like iPhones, to Lee Siegel’s wounded polemic against the culture of online meanness he calls “blogofascism,” to linguist Naomi S. Baron’s warnings about the way IM totes compromises expression and comprehension IRL, to Daniel Solove’s musings about the YouTube-diminished “future of reputation,” publishers are banking on the notion that whenever we’re not busy twittering our lives away, we’d like to be reading a pop-scholarly analysis of why we’re doing so and how we could be doing it better. Who do they think is buying these books, anyway?
Actually, come to think of it, I’m buying them–all of them. I’m doing it for odd reasons, though, and I’m looking in them for something that I never quite find. Like an expatriate who reads every new novel that’s set in her homeland, I read books about the Internet to remember the time I spent working and living there, to contrast my memories with the authors’ impressions and see how well they hold up. In Shirky’s descriptions of the way new Web-based social tools are restructuring businesses, communities, and relationships, I recognize familiar scenery. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s lived there too. You get the sense, though, that he’s somehow managed to avoid walking down any dark alleys, or staring too long at any piles of fetid garbage.