Publishing is the New Literacy

In a recent piece at Clay Shirky talks about the changes brought about by the internet and relates them to historical  events.

To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.

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.

The mere fact of being able to publish to a global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely available that you can’t make any money with the basic capability any more.

I know that this line was tweeted a lot, but it seems that many people missed the point. He wasn’t saying publishing is a new literacy. He is comparing publishing to the historical aspect of being literate.  He adds some clarification in an interview with James Mustich and Andrew Keen on

We have this whole complex of words, “publish,” “publisher,” “publicity,” “publicist,” that all refer to either jobs or the work of making things public. Because it used to be incredibly difficult, complicated, and expensive to simply put material into the public sphere, and now it’s not. So I’m comparing it to literacy — literacy used to be reserved for a specialist class prior to the printing press, and, much more importantly, prior to the spread of publishers and the rise of a real publishing industry.

Including this statement

As I put it in “Here Comes Everybody,”society doesn’t change when people adopt new tools; it changes when people adopt new behaviors.

Mustich recounts a point made by Shirky and one I have shared often when speaking lately – We can not see where we are going from here.

What interests me in what you wrote about the printing press, and the immediate changes its advent provoked, is how unclear the effect of its influence was to those subject to it at the time. Today, in the throes of another massive technological change, we’re trying to see very clearly what’s happening, and part of the point of your piece is that we can’t see it either, because we don’t know what the behaviors are going to be that are engendered by the technology.

If you haven’t read Clay Shirky’s two books Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, I strongly recommend them. 

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