The Largest Increase in Expressive Capability in the History of the Human Race

07/15/2010

At Submishmash, we write novels as well as code. We fronted rock bands and made films before coming up with this application and company. So while we are as aware of the rate of technological change as any professionals in our industry, we have what we believe is a unique commitment to ensuring that the art forms we love not only survive but thrive as a result of the enormous changes we are living through.

Of the many thoughtful people who are currently analyzing those enormous changes, Clay Shirky strikes us as one of the shrewdest and most insightful. You’ve probably come across interviews with Shirky on the radio or in printin the lead-up to publication of his new book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores the ways we might harness the extraordinary expressive potential of the internet for the good of society. It was in this context that we were directed to a short essay he wrote earlier this year for the website of The Edge Foundation. Parts of that essay speak directly to Submishmash’s mission, as we see it. Here is Shirky on oversupply, an aspect of the digital revolution that writers, publishers, and readers grapple with on a daily basis:

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.

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.

The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video. 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.

Submishmash would add only that “the basic capability” to publish is itself no longer so basic, thanks also to oversupply. The surplus of choice that afflicts audiences also afflicts publishers. There is an oversupply of writing both published and unpublished, an ever-present risk that as readers both amateur (in the bookstore or on the internet) and professional (trying to filter our submission stacks), we are missing the good stuff amid the surplus of output from (often charming) eight-year-olds.

Navigating the twin challenges of oversupply—how to attract and maintain an audience with too many choices, and how to filter an ever-expanding mass of submissions effectively—constitutes the central struggle of the publisher in the digital age. It will take inspired curators, certainly, to thrive under these conditions. It will also, we believe, take new technological tools and ways of thinking.