Finished Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” yesterday and it’s now on the top of my list in terms of books that explain the state of the world in a cogent, balanced, even-tempered way. It’s not a book about education, per se, but it’s a book by an educator who brings a teacher stance to the conversation. And it articulates clearly and without hyperbole the shifts and challenges that are presenting themselves right now.

Before getting to some of the more salient quotes, let me just say that I’m feeling a great deal more urgency about this conversation at the moment. Between reading the book and watching some of the videos from the FastForward blog on the future of enterprise, it just feels like the tsunami is bearing down on us and we don’t even know there’s much of a wave out there on the ocean. (Take a few minutes to watch this vid interview with John Hagel, for instance. How are we as schools developing “talent”?)

Early in the book, Shirky makes the point that while traditional institutions are facing competition, they are not going away. But they are going to have to change:

None of the absolute advantages of institutions like businesses or schools or governments have disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared–relative, that is, to the direct effort of the people they represent (23).

The value of the services that institutions provide is changing as individuals become more and more able to undertake “ridiculously easy group forming” and do everything from share music to create the sum of human knowledge online. That ability is what changes the rules, Shirky says, and that can be a good thing (Wikipedia) and a bad thing (terrorists). But it is profound, nonetheless.

We are plainly witnessing the restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences–employees and the world. The increases in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be (107). [Emphasis mine.]

Which says a couple of things to me. First, we need to move away from this idea (as driven by current assessments) that information is our core product and that second, we need to set information free in our schools. If we don’t, how will we ever be able to teach our kids how to use well the power they can now wield with their networks?

Shirky also points out that this is not going to be fast nor will it be easy.

As with the printing press, the loss of professional control will be bad for many of society’s core institutions, but it’s happening anyway. The comparison with the printing press doesn’t suggest that we are entering a bright new future–for a hundred years after it started, the printing press broke more things than it fixed, plunging Europe into a period of intellectual and political chaos that ended only in the 1600s (73).

I wonder, however, if time runs at the same speed today as it did back then. 100 years feels like an awfully long time for all of this to shake out.

There is much more to think about here, but I’ll end where Shirky ends, with some thoughts on how we first have to change our own frames before any of this will begin to truly make sense. Apologies for the long snip, but I think it’s worth the read:

For us, no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in new technology, it will always have a certain provisional quality. Those of us with considerable real-world experience are often at an advantage relative to young people, who are comparative novices in the way the world works. The mistakes novices make come from a lack of experience. The overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But in times of revolution, the experienced among us make the opposite mistake. When a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad.

…young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do. I’m old enough to know a lot of things just from life experience. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that music comes from stores. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that complicated things like software and encyclopedias have to be created by professionals. In the last fifteen years I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because they have stopped being true. I’ve become like the grown-ups arguing in my local paper about calculators; just as it took them a long time to realize that calculators were never going away, those of us old enough to remember a time before social tools became widely available are constantly playing catch-up. Meanwhile my students, many of whom are fifteen years younger than I am, don’t have to unlearn those things, because they never had to learn them in the first place.

The advantage of youth, however, is relative, not absolute. Just as everyone eventually came to treat the calculator as a ubiquitous and invisible tool, we are all coming to take our social tools for granted as well. Our social tools are dramatically improving our ability to share, cooperate and act together. As everyone from working biologists to angry air passengers adopts those tools, it is leading to an epochal change.

Read the book.