A few days ago, Gary Stager tweeted me this link in the LA Times about the demise of journalism and freelance writing primarily due to everything being, well, “free” on the Internet. The subhead read, in part, “the well-written story is in danger of becoming scarce.” Gary’s Tweet read “This is disastrous for our culture and democracy…Web 2.0 won’t solve this problem.” And to the first point, at least, I think he’s right. The loss of quality reporting and thoughtful writing has to be a concern, especially for a society that by all indications is becoming more and more disengaged intellectually. (Read this David Brooks column and the accompanying comments and any of the magazine covers at your supermarket checkout stand for evidence.) But regarding the last part of Gary’s tweet, I’m stuck with two reactions. First, who says Web 2.0 won’t solve this? And second,  what’s the alternative?

I mean sure, we can wring our hands and lament the slipping away of what many of us older types (ugh) feel are the best parts of our culture, the parts (good journalism included) that preserved and promoted democracy and citizenship and art by setting high standards and celebrating the complexity of the world. But all the hand wringing in the world is not going to slow down the train of participatory culture, this place where 4.5 years of mostly insipid YouTube video is being uploaded in the next 24 hours. Whether we see the Web as beast or feast, it’s long past the moment that anyone can argue it away on the grounds that decency and civility and intellectual engagement are being lost. And to me, at least, that leaves us with how do we make the most of it? How do we (and it’s not  “can we?” because I believe we can) take this huge disruptive force that is the Web and turn it into something that celebrates culture, promotes and supports the best of our democratic ideals, and improves the world in ways that maybe we can’t yet imagine?

Frankly, what’s our choice?

Clay Shirky writes compellingly about this in his most recent Edge piece, which, btw, is one of over 160 such pieces encompassing 130,000 words from some of the smartest folks out there that you can curl up with in front of a nice fire on a cold winter afternoon (and night.) I love this snip:

Unfortunately for us, though, the intellectual fate of our historical generation is unlikely to matter much in the long haul. It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

We are in many ways “freaking out” right now about how these things are changing. And, specifically to Gary’s point, Shirky offers this:

This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages.

I won’t speak for Gary, but I would guess by his Tweets and comments over the years that that comes close to how he and others feel. But it’s the next line that I think sums up the choice we have in front of us pretty clearly:

So it falls to us to make sure that isn’t all that happens.

While the “us” there is certainly each and every one of us, there’s no doubt that’s a bar that is especially being set for educators and for parents. I’m convinced this doesn’t have to be disastrous. But I’m also convinced that we’re not working hard enough as a society to make sure that we find and promote the real intellectual value of these tools in literate ways. Because they exist, and because, like it or not, we’re the ones who in Shirky’s words have to set the norms for their use. I love the way he ends his essay:

The Internet’s primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of ‘comes from everyone’ and ‘goes everywhere.’) We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won’t matter much, but the norms we set will.

Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.

I know, I know. I’ve sipped the Shirky Kool-Aid pretty hard. But we do have a choice here, let’s not forget that. I don’t think any of us in this network sees the Internet as a place with just “a modicum of educational material” in a sea of flotsam and jetsam. I hope we see it more as that “communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change” because if we don’t, if we don’t figure out ways to start setting those norms for our kids and others, then we surely will be on the precipice of disaster.

No pressure.