Con­nected hori­zons

Top In­ter­net thinker lands in South Africa

Finweek English Edition - - TECH TRENDS - SIMON DINGLE si­mond@fin­week.co.za

ONE OF THE MOST re­spected au­thors and lec­tur­ers about In­ter­net trends, Clay Shirky, is in South Africa this week for the Tech4Africa con­fer­ence, where he’ll de­liver a key­note ad­dress. Shirky teaches “New me­dia” as an as­so­ci­ate teacher at New York Uni­ver­sity’s grad­u­ate In­ter­ac­tive Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Pro­gramme and is the author of a num­ber of books, in­clud­ing Here Comes Ev­ery­body: The Power of Or­gan­is­ing With­out Or­gan­i­sa­tions and Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus: Cre­ativ­ity and Gen­eros­ity in

a Con­nected Age. In these, his lat­est books, Shirky makes in­spir­ing ob­ser­va­tions about In­ter­net us­age and the prospects that ex­ist in a world where ev­ery­one is con­nected by com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies.

Shirky says technology has to be placed in con­text. “I was one of those techies who wrongly be­lieved in the Nineties this was mainly about the technology. It’s the eas­i­est cal­cu­la­tion to make. If you see an ex­ist­ing sit­u­a­tion – and then you get new technology and new be­hav­iour – you think: ah ha, the technology caused the be­hav­iour.

Af­ter nearly two decades of think­ing about this stuff, I’m not sure I be­lieve that strongly in the idea of in­flec­tion points any­more

CLAY SHIRKY

“What has be­come clear – partly from watch­ing this un­fold in the world and partly from im­proved so­cial sci­ence re­search – is what the technology is do­ing is al­low­ing new be­hav­iours but it’s not caus­ing new be­hav­iours. As I put it in

Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus, be­hav­iour is mo­ti­va­tion fil­tered through op­por­tu­nity. And, in fact, what the technology is do­ing is giv­ing us new op­por­tu­ni­ties to fill an­cient mo­ti­va­tions. And so the so­cial piece of it re­ally is the crit­i­cal bit.”

Shirky uses the ex­am­ple of Ushahidi – an open source so­cial net­work­ing sys­tem de­vel­oped in Kenya to al­low mon­i­tor­ing of vi­o­lence in the wake of that coun­try’s dis­puted elec­tions in 2007. Ushahidi al­lowed Kenyans to use their cell­phones to iden­tify points of vi­o­lence ge­o­graph­i­cally, which were then mapped and made avail­able on­line. Since then the sys­tem has been used to track vi­o­lence and dis­as­ters world­wide.

Says Shirky: “We’re all used to the sen­tence that starts with ‘this technology was de­vel­oped in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, and spread world­wide’. The sen­tence: ‘This technology was de­vel­oped in Nairobi, Kenya, and spread world­wide in three years’ – that’s a new sen­tence.”

He’s in­spired by the in­no­va­tion that hap­pens when technology is used to fill rudi­men­tary needs. “What the de­vel­op­ers of Ushahidi did wasn’t to de­sign a tool but to de­sign an op­por­tu­nity. To make it clear, why you’d want to par­tic­i­pate in some­thing like this,” says Shirky.

Does he be­lieve we’re reach­ing an in­flec­tion point for the in­no­va­tion of technology in Africa?

“Af­ter nearly two decades of think­ing about this stuff I’m not sure I be­lieve that strongly in the idea of in­flec­tion points any­more. There are cer­tainly times where a technology that didn’t ex­ist is in­vented and you can point to some­thing re­ally clean there – the first time a search en­gine showed up, the first time a browser showed up, the first time the web showed up. But the so­cial changes af­ter that, the kind of em­brace and pro­gres­sive use and ex­per­tise, are ac­tu­ally an in­cred­i­bly smooth curve.

“If you look at ev­ery­thing – from the adop­tion of email, to the adop­tion of web, to the adop­tion of Face­Book – the curve is just very smooth. For any given per­son the in­flec­tion point is the moment at which they’re sur­prised: but the sur­prise I think of­ten comes more from our as­sump­tions about how the world should work than it comes from any sud­den change in the en­vi­ron­ment.

“The in­flec­tion points re­flect more when we start pay­ing at­ten­tion to ef­fects rather than when the ef­fects start hap­pen­ing. We’ve been able to see the ‘face’ in Face­Book all the way along: it’s just that for a lot of peo­ple it’s risen around a thresh­old of value, or in­ter­est, or im­por­tance just in the past 12 months. So we want to say 2009 or 2010 was the break­out year for Face­Book, or the fact that Face­Book hasn’t had a break­out year, or ev­ery year is the break­out year for Face­Book… take your pick,” says Shirky.

Tech4Africa takes place in Jo­han­nes­burg from 11 to 13 Au­gust.

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