Clay Shirky on Git and Society

I came across this video by Clay Shirky on Monday, in the Atlantic Clay Shirky is usually very watchable, but I think this is especially worth 18 mins of your time to watch, and was worth me writing notes about it, and blogging them here:


I've now watched it for the second time, to try and get my head around the argument, because from what I can tell, the TL;DR version of this talk seems to be:

"Git is leading to new ways of making laws".

True, that TL;DR summary is somewhat glib, but that really doesn't seem far from the main point here he's making here - that new technologies allow for new forms of argument, which expedite changes in society, because they're inherently better for creating shared understanding of potentially complex subjects.

Bear with me here

To make this point, he introduces the role the development of the scientific journal played in the Scientific Revolution, that took place between The Renaissance and The Enlightenment.

A few hundred years back, although the printing press was well understood and common place, using books to communicate ideas within a distant group of people we would refer these days as scientists (generally speaking, members of the Invisible College), proved too slow for such a group, so the Scientific Journal was created as way of syncing the argument across the commmunity instead.

This was smaller, and could be printed and circulated far more quickly than long form books, and its effect on the speed of progress within the field science was pronounced:

Scientific revolution wasn't created by the printing press - it was created by scientists, but it couldnt' have happened without the printing press

In much the same way, Clay argues that advances in collaboration tools like git allow a different quality of argument, especially as people begin to use version control tools outside the domain of just software development, and try applying it to subjects like law.

Pull requests for the government

Before we go into thinking he's really into technological determinism, he's keen to point out that these changes aren't inevitable, and they're definitely not coming from the centre where power in society lies (right now, in most cases governments are more interested in unidirectional, 'openness', rather than merging in pull requests), but the fringes.

To illustrate this point, he points to a few examples of written law either being hosted on Github as the geeks poke at it, and try to see where it acts like code and where it doesn't.

He also shows an example of applying the tools and processes of software development to making changes, by showing a diff on a proposed law, as an example of a new form of argument:

As a developer, it's easy to take this for granted, but Clay seems to be fascinated by it:

no democracy anywhere in the world provides this for legislation or budgets, even though, they're done with our consent and our money

I mean really fascinated by it:

A momentous thing that can happen to a culture is for it to acquire a new form of arguing - trial by jury, voting, peer review and now this. a new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetime - its large, it's distributed, it's low cost and compatible with democracy. The question is whether we're going to allow programmers to keep it to themselves, or are we going to try and take it and press it into service of society at large


It's easy to be swept away with the hubris here - Clay is a fantastic speaker, and as someone who's made a profession of writing code, hearing the tools of your trade allow a new form of discourse is obviously flattering.

One key thing in his talk though is how inaccessible this currently is to people who can't program though - this Venn diagram from a related question on Quora helps explain why we haven't seen too many politicians riding into office on a wave of nerd euphoria, (although depending on how you look it at, we might have had one recently).

What it does do however, is give me a new way of understanding why working with other people on github, when both sending and receiving pull requests is such a pleasurable process - when done right, theres's this fantastic sense of harmony and synchronicity you feel, that I haven't come across in any other activity, except perhaps well rehearsed a dance.

When I'm talking to other people and explaining why I enjoy writing code, or opening charitable pull requests on projects run by distant strangers in future, I'll point them to this video, and tell them I'm trying out a new form of argument with them.

There's a great post [here with more salient links on the TED blog] here as well. If you enjoyed the vid and read this far, you really owe it to yourself to check it out.

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