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Shirky’s myth of complexity

Clay Shirky has given us a surprising number of Internet myths. And by this I mean not falsehoods but the opposite: Broad, illuminating ways of making sense of what’s going on. For example, Clay’s post about the power law distribution of links in the blogosphere (based on research by Cameron Marlow) changed how we view authority, fame, and success in the Web ecosystem, and provided the structure within which Chris Anderson could point to the Long Tail. And Clay’s Ontology Is Overrated made clear that a change in how we categorize our world affects very real power relationships; that essay was highly influential, including on my own Everything Is Miscellaneous.

Clay’s new post — The Collapse of Complex Business Models — gives us a broad way of understanding why those who used to provide us with content will not be the ones who give us content in the future…and why they cannot fathom why not.

5 Responses to “Shirky’s myth of complexity”

  1. While I think Clay is most definitely on the right track, I think how he words things is a little bit confusing. The quick impression that people might be getting from this is that complex systems are going to collapse and disappear, eventually being replaced by smaller, simpler, and flexible systems. I disagree. Instead we’ll be seeing these large complex systems being replaced by many small and efficient localized systems working in collaboration (i.e. small pieces loosely joined). So the complex systems will still exist, it’s just that instead of it being centralized and controlled by one organization, it will be decentralized and managed by many at a more local level (thus allowing them to be much more flexible).

    You can read some examples of this within John Thackara’s book entitled “In The Bubble: Designing in A Complex World”. One example relates to shifting healthcare from a bloated centralized approach to a decentralized approach with much more focus, awareness, and work put on the local level (i.e. people taking more responsibility for their health, instead of dumping it on doctors, chiropractors, etc). Another example relates to smaller European towns working in collaboration to network a variety of different services so that they emulate the services provided by a larger city.

    Your last statement is absolutely correct. Those who provided us with content in the past will most definitely change, since these complex systems will no longer be run and controlled by a single corporate entity. They might still be managed by a single collaborative organization but instead of them acting as a “controlling” body, they will instead be a resource providing one (i.e. open, sharing, caring) similar to how real communities function in relationship to their members.

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