Frozen choices

Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made. These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.
— Clay Shirky, Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis, December 2, 2011

Shirky continues,

Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood an Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views.

That dual reduction of choices masks an essential asymmetry, though. Institutions are designed to reduce they choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 am, and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not.

Overlapping, partial, competitive, cooperative attempts

All of this seems to offer the grandmotherly option between Starkman and the FON [Future Of News] crew — ‘You’re both right, dear. We need institutions and we need experiments.’ Even given this hybridization, though, our views diverge: Plan A assumes that experiments should be spokes to the newspapers’ hub, their continued role as the clear center of public interest journalism assured, and on the terms previously negotiated.

Plan B follows Jonathan Stray’s observations about the digital public sphere: in a world where Wikipedia is a more popular source of information than any newspaper, maybe we won’t have a clear center anymore. Maybe we’ll just have lots of overlapping, partial, competitive, cooperative attempts to arm the public to deal with the world we live in.

Some of the experiments going on today, small and tentative as they are, will eventually harden into institutional form, and that development will be as surprising as the penny press subsidizing journalism for seven generations. The old landscape had institutions and so will the new one, but this doesn’t imply continuity.
— Clay Shirky, Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis, December 2, 2011

No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds

If you believe, as I do, that many of those [newspaper publishing] institutions are so mismatched to the task at hand that most of them face a choice, at best, between radical restructure and outright collapse, well, in that case, you’d probably find the smartest 25 year olds you know, and try to convince them that now would be a pretty good time to start working on Plan B… No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds.
— Clay Shirky, Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis, December 2, 2011

Long-term accidents

Twentieth-century beliefs about who could produce and consume public messages, about who could coordinate group action and how, and about the inherent and fundamental link between intrinsic motivations and privation actions, all turned out to be nothing more than long-term accidents. Those accidents are now being undone by new opportunities, created by us, for one another, using abilities afforded to us by new tools. The driving force…is the ability of loosely coordinated groups with a shared culture to perform tasks more effectively than individuals, more effectively than markets using price signals, and more effectively than governments using managerial direction.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 4 (last page)