shirky_big.jpgThe Basics
Age and occupation. How long have you lived here, where did you come from, and where do you live now?
39. Professor, writer, and consultant on internet technologies. I came from a state in the Midwest you probably have not heard of. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a lighting designer who worked on big Broadway musicals. My 16th birthday present was a trip to NYC, and after a couple of days here, I swore I'd move here, which I did, 4 days after I graduated from college. I have lived here ever since. I currently live opposite the dolphin in the kid's part of that little park on Congress Street, Brooklyn.

Three Queries
1. Blogs: beloved little observations grouped sequentially. I'm almost afraid to ask the question but what's your brief take on where all this blogging is headed?
It's headed everywhere, because the underlying pattern of cheap amateur publishing is what's important, not the current manifestations. The word blog itself is going to fade into the middle distance, in the same way words like home page and portal did. Those words used to mean something relatively crisp and specific, but became so overloaded as to be meaningless.

Already blogs are used for groups of teenagers to bitch about their lives, as on many LiveJournal sites; to track gossip, politics, and tech trends, as with Gawker, Wonkette, and Gizmodo; as an adjunct to political campaigns; and as a kind of giant distributed OpEd page. Too much for one little word.

So forget about blogs and bloggers and blogging and focus on this -- the cost and difficulty of publishing absolutely anything, by anyone, into a global medium, just got a whole lot lower. And the effects of that increased pool of potential producers is going to be vast.

2. With all the various projects/papers you work on, the magazine freelancing, teaching at NYU's ITP program, I assume you've seen the future. I'm sure Friendster and blogs won't change the world, so what do you think will? (At least in terms of this technology stuff.)
The thing that will change the future in the future is the same thing that changed the future in the past --- freedom, in both its grand and narrow senses.

The narrow sense of freedom, in tech terms, is a freedom to tinker, to prod and poke and break and fix things. Good technologies -- the PC, the internet, HTML -- enable this. Bad technologies -- cellphones, set-top boxes -- forbid it, in hardware or contract. A lot of the fights in the next 5 years are going to be between people who want this kind of freedom in their technologies vs. business people who think freedom is a shitty business model compared with control.

And none of this would matter, really, except that in a technologically mediated age, our grand freedoms -- freedom of speech, of association, of the press -- are based on the narrow ones. Wave after wave of world-changing technology like email and the Web and instant messaging and Napster and Kazaa have been made possible because the technological freedoms we enjoy, especially the ones instantiated in the internet.

The internet means you don't have to convince anyone that something is a good idea before trying it, and that in turn means that you don't need to be a huge company to change the world. Microsoft gears up the global publicity machine its launch of Windows 98, and at the same time a 19 year old kid procrastinating on his CS homework invents a way to trade MP3 files. Guess which software spread faster, and changed people's lives more?

So while things like FCC regulation of the internet have that MEGO quality (My Eyes Glaze Over), they matter, a lot, because the only way for 19 year olds to change the world in this medium is to give them the freedom to ignore all previous work to date, and come up with something new.

3. Denton vs. Calacanis?
Yes, absolutely. I'd sign up for Pay-per-View cable to watch that fight.

Proust-Krucoff Questionnaire
Please share a personal (and hopefully interesting) NYC taxi story.
I was coming home in a cab from LGA in the pouring rain a few months ago, and sliding through a pool of water, we rear-ended the cab ahead of us. Both drivers got out, furious, and, before saying a word to one another, took out their phones and photographed each other's license plates.

It was the first use of a camera phone I'd seen that wasn't just for those "Hey! I'm drinking a margarita!" snapshots, and it convinced me that the unexpected uses of these things were going to be much more interesting than anything Nokia has dreamed of.

Time travel question: What era, day or event in New York's history would you like to re-live?
I'd re-live last Wednesday around 8, when debating taking the F or the N home. I'd have opted for the N.

9pm, Wednesday - what are you doing?
Stuck on the F.

What's your New York motto?
New York is 45 stars and 7 million extras, but it's a different 45 every day.

Describe that low, low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
Early 90s. I am separated but not yet divorced, because my then-wife and I don't have $300 for a lawyer. I am also unemployed. I am crashing at a friend's place on 25th and 6th, where she is graciously letting me stay while she's away.

On a hot Saturday night in July, I'm heading back from Brooklyn to "home." It's one of those nights just walking down the street feels like you're wrapped in a warm damp blanket and standing in bus exhaust.

I go down into the Borough Hall Station, where the air is even hotter, stiller, and smellier than the street, and head for the 2/3. When I get to the platform, I've just missed a train, and now the platform is empty, except me and one very tough looking guy.

Who starts walking towards me.

And I panic. (I'd been held up at gun point in Williamsburg earlier that summer, so I was especially jittery.)

I literally run back down the platform, up the stairs, and stop, shivering, just inside the turnstile where the clerk can see me. I can't go through, because I don't have enough money for another token, so I decide I'll ride the 4/5, which I can see from where I'm standing, then get off at 23rd and walk the rest of the way home.

After a long time, the train comes. I get on it, and begin working on two different problems. The first, and larger problem is how to get the fuck out of New York City, which is dirty, dangerous, disgusting, I hate New York, I have to get out. Soon. To anywhere else. Maybe a trailer park in Idaho.

The second, more immediate problem is beer. There is a bodega at 25th and 6th, run by these crazy Iranian guys. I don't know if it will be open (it is by now two in the morning), and if it is, I don't know if they'll sell me beer, as it's technically Sunday. These are minor problems, though, compared to money.

I am sitting on the 4, simultaneously visualizing my new life as an Idahoian and scrounging pennies out of my jeans pockets. "82, 83, 84, 85." Bingo! Budweiser time. Budweiser has the obvious downside of tasting bad, but has the twin upsides of being 5% alcohol and 85 cents a can, which tips the scales.

This realization depresses me even more -- five years busting my ass at my chosen profession, and I'm sitting on the subway at two in the morning counting pennies so I can get a single can of lousy beer and go home alone.

I get out at 23rd, and start walking west, then north on 6th. The bodega is still open, and as I walk in, one of the guys standing by the door holds up his hand to stop me, and says something I will never forget.

"Who is the better designer? Yves St. Laurent, or Bill Blass?" (except it was more like 'Beel Bless'.) These options are presented as if I am facing the Judgment of Paris, and his body language makes it clear that I'm not getting to the cooler 'til I answer.

Now this is jolting, in part because it's so random, but also because I am definitely not the guy to ask. My sartorial sensibilities veer between dress-down Friday and last man out of a mine collapse, and that evening had me closer to the West Virginia end of the spectrum -- ratty sneakers, no socks, paint stained cut-offs, a t-shirt with holes and coffee stains.

And so, transported from my "I hate New York" funk into an unexpected interrogation, I fall back on two habits of mind common to generations of New Yorkers. First, never let the fact that you know absolutely nothing about the matter at hand stop you from delivering a firm opinion, and, second, when in doubt on matters of culture, go for the French-sounding name.

"Yves St. Laurent." Obviously.

His face lights up, and he turns and backhands his partner in the chest. "See!" Then he turns back to me. "Thank you. You are my friend," and steps aside.

When I get back to the counter to pay, he waves his hand as if pardoning a sentence of death. "You are my friend," he says again. Free beer! From Muslims! On the Sabbath! What could be bad?

A little dazed, I head for the door, and he stops me a third time. "You are my friend. Here, don't get AIDS." (Except it's "Doan ge'Daids", so it takes me a moment to process.) Then I see he's holding a little stack of condoms, and he takes one off the top and hands it to me. I stand there for a minute, and he just smiles and nods. I am free to go.

And so I head out one Bud, one Trojan, and 85 cents to the good, and walk the last half block home thinking how much I love this town.

Just after midnight on a Saturday - what are you doing?
Changing diapers.

Just how much do you really love New York?
|--- --- ---- --- --- --- --- this much --- ---- --- --- -- -- --- --- --- -|
SCALE: 1 Hyphen Equals 17 Crosstown Blocks

What happened the last time you went to L.A.?
Since that's such a fatuous question, I'll ask the question you should have asked: What is New York?

When the Korean family who runs the deli on my corner started selling pita bread, they decided to introduce it to their customers by setting it out on the counter underneath a hand-lettered sign that said "Perfect for fajitas!"

*That* is New York. It's accidental cultural collage -- not in the self-concious "It's Shakespeare, but with black people in speaking roles!" kind of way but in the "There's a Popeye's Fried Chicken in Chinatown" kind of way, in the "Koreans run delicatessens and Iranians run bodegas" kind of way.

In 98% of the country, when you say "Hot dog", they say "Ketchup." Here, when you say "Hot dog", we say "Papaya." God knows who figured out that German spiced sausage would go good with fruit juice from the West Indies, but it couldn't have happened any place but here.

Medication: What and how much do you take?
Double espresso, ristretto e molto dolce, 2x-3x per day.

If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be?
Take a copy of any local listings guide, and circle the good things you might like to do in the coming week. You'll run out of ink before you run out of good.

No one gets up in the morning thinking "Today, I'd like incontrovertible proof that I'm not the smartest one here, or the sexiest, or the funniest, or..." but that's just what happens, every day. You a painter? So's Chuck Close -- take a number. Got a gig at a salsa club? Tito played there. Want to be a banker? The guy at the head of the line is Henry Kravis.

Dancers can worry about Twyla or Darci or Savion as the mood strikes them. The transgendered lie awake at night because they just know that someone out there is more transgendered than they are.

That's New York -- you're rollerblading along, grooving to some Foghat on the iPod, and you get lapped by a gyrating speed-demon in a special lycra rollerblading uniform who is clearly The Greatest Rollerblader in the History of the World.

I don't know if there's a DSM-IV category for it, but a lot of New Yorkers are exhausted by excellence. And it's in that environment that things like Dale Peck happen.

Now Peck will say that people read his hatchet job book reviews as literary criticism, which is like Penthouse saying they publish articles, essays and photos. Factually true, actually false. What Peck writes is distilled envy, sanitized for your convenience.

If you're exhausted by excellence, Peck is a relief because he whispers lies in your ear you really want to hear -- "A lot of those people who seem to be doing good work -- they're actually not so hot."

Because he doesn't offer any alternatives, he lets you fill in the conclusion you're desperate for: the city around you is more mediocre than it seems, so the gap between you and the people at the top of their form comes to seem liveably small.

And Peck is just an avatar of the pattern. Go to any party -- architects, fashion designers, mathematicians -- and you'll hear the same thing, and usually so subtle, so sophisticated: "Well, I enjoyed the piece, but I thought it was a little derivative", "The building is interesting on its own terms, but it isn't very well integrated with the neighborhood." Tiny sprinklings of corrosive doubt, offer by people gnawed by envy, and seized on by those made sick by over-exposure to quality.

So when my turn with the magic wand comes around, I'll use it to turn the snarkiness dial down, way down. Criticize, sure -- if something's bullshit, say so, and if you have an insight about how something might be better, sing it, and sing it loud. It is New York, after all. But when you feel yourself about to criticize something because you just can't stand how good it is (and you know you do this, we all do), at that moment, stop.

Stop, because it will turn you into the kind of small-minded champion of mediocrity we all came here to escape. Every day, you've got a choice -- am I gonna be one of the 45, or am I gonna be one of the 7 million. And being snarky about other people's good work ain't gonna help you with that.

So if I could change anything about New York, that's what I'd change. That, and fixing the F train.


Find out more about Clay at Shirky.com.