There are many things to be said about Clay Shirky’s recent book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” and a lot has already been said. The book is part of an every growing pile of Web 2.0 literature that could be qualified as “popular science” – easily digestible titles, generally written by scholars or science journalists, which are generally declaring the advent of a new age where old concepts no longer apply and everything is profoundly transformed (knowledge, education, the economy, thinking, wisdom, organization, culture, journalism, etc.). The genre has been pioneered by people like Alvin Toffler and Jeremy Rifkin and it does now dominate much of the debate on the social, cultural and political “effects” of recent developments in ICT. There is of course merit to a larger debate on technology and the sensationalist baseline is perhaps needed to create the audience for such a debate. At the same time, I cannot help feeling a little bit unsettled by the scope the phenomenon has taken and the grip these books seem to have on academic discourse. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. There are actually very few thoughts and arguments in the whole “Web 2.0 literature” that have not already been phrased in Tim O’Reilly’s original essay. Granted, the piece was quite seminal but shouldn’t academia be able to come up with a stronger conceptual viewpoint?
  2. The books in question are really lightweight when it comes to anchoring their thoughts in previous scholarly effort. A lot of room is given to metaphorical coupling with the natural sciences (some keywords: swarms, ecologies, auto-organization, percolation, critical thresholds, chaos, etc.) but although most of these books talk about the future of work (prosumers performing collective wisdom, in short), there is very little interaction with the sociology of labor or economic theory. Sure, a deeper examination of these topics would be difficult, but without some grounding in established work, the whole purpose of scholarship as a collective endeavor is meaningless – which is especially ironic given the celebration of cooperation one can find in Web 2.0 literature
  3. As I’ve already written in another post, I find the idea that “participation” and “leveling of hierarchies” equates democracy deeply troubling. Richard Sennett’s argument that stable social organization and work relations are necessary prerequisites for true political discourse – politics that go beyond the flash mob activism often presented as prove for the new, more democratic age that is upon us – is ringing louder than ever.
  4. Much of the Web 2.0 literature is basically antithetical to the purpose of this blog. Shirky’s idea that the new social tools allow for “organizing without organizations” is largely ignoring the political power that is transferred to the 21st century tool maker and the companies that he or she works for. I’m not advocating paranoia here, but the fact that many of the tools that power mass sociability online are produced and controlled by firms that are accountable to their shareholders only (or the people that got them venture capital) is at least worth mentioning. But the problem really goes beyond that: the tools we currently have incite people to gather around common interests, creating and activating issue publics than can indeed take influence on political matters. But politics is much more than the totality of policy decisions. The rise of issue publics has coincided with the demise of popular parties and while this may look like a good thing to many people, parties have historically been the laboratories for the development of politics beyond policy. Europe’s social market economies are unthinkable without the various socialist parties that worked over decades to make societies more just. One does not have to be a left winger to recognize that the loss of the stable and accountable forum that is the political party would be at least ambiguous.
  5. While Web 2.0 literature is light on politics and serious political theory it is not stingy with morals. The identification of “good” and “bad” effects that 2.0 ICT will have on society often seems really at the core of many of the texts published over the last few years. But as point 4 might have shown, the idea of “good” and “bad” is really meaningless outside of a particular political (or religious) ontology. What actually happens is the understatement of a vague political consensus that takes a position antithetical to the premises of critical sociology, i.e. that conflict is constitutive to society.
  6. An essay stretched over 250 pages does not make a book. (I know, that’s a little mean – but also a little true, no?)

Don’t get me wrong, many of the books I’m referring to have actually been quite interesting to read. What worries me is the lack of more scholarly and conceptually demanding works but perhaps I’m just impatient. In a sense, “Digital Formations” by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen already shows how sophisticated Internet Research could be if we switch off that prophet gene.

Post filed under critique, web 2.0.


  1. Pingback: Web 2.0 Literatur « if its on teh interweb it must be true

  2. Pingback: Kritik mot litteratur om webb 2.0 « Internetsociologi

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