Clay Shirky and Judaism

Clay Shirky is a futurist thinker and a technologist and general genius. He’s got nothing to do with Judaism. And yet.

First thing to do with this post (which is a bit of a time commitment, frankly) is watch this video. I first saw this video of Shirky talking about gin, cognitive surpluses, sitcoms, wikipedia, and why a screen without a mouse ships broken when it was first making the rounds this spring. I watched is several times and I still go back to it occasionally because it’s entertaining and fascinating. So watch it already.

While helping a housemate study for her sociology final this week, we got sidetracked and watched the video. It was the first time she’d seen at probably the sixth or seventh time for me. And something struck me this time that hadn’t struck me before. I’m not gonna summarize this video, so for God’s sake, watch it. If you don’t, this post is gonna get real incomprehensible real quick.

What Shirky is talking about is shift in how we consume media. He’s saying that when all we could do was consume media, that was fine. But as soon as we can consume it, produce it, and share it we will do all three and we will do it avidly. TV is good, but it’s unidirectional. YouTube is better because I can watch, for very small startup capital, I can produce, and for free, I can share, by which I mean that I can e-mail it to whomever I want. I can even comment on it and let everyone know just what I think about it. 

So here’s my half-formed thought-question: We are seeing in large metropolitan areas, and occasionally in a few other geographic areas a new type of decentralized Judaism. These communities are what we have begun to call Emergent Communities. These communities are highly volunteer-run. They’re small and they’re highly connected to their respective Jewish communities, but not to the large organizations that have so long dominated Jewish life in America such as the OU, the USCJ, and the URJ.

It is typical at the chavurah that I attend while at school for a d’var torah to begin with a little suggestion. There are a few ideas shared, but it quickly breaks down into a few side conversations, with the person delivering the d’var torah interacting fluidly with the entire assmebled group of daveners.

Compare this to the congregation I grew up at. Even on a small Shabat morning in the little chapel, this might happen to some extent, but it was unusual. If the d’var torah was to be entirely interactive, the rabbi would have to tell us this explicitly, because it did not happen regularly. And even after announcing it, it took some coaxing to get the majority to perk up an participate.

Shirky is talking about a one-time shift in the way we experience media. Are we also looking at a major shift in the way we experience Judaism?

I’m not entirely sure that we are. But it’s cool to think about.

14 Responses to Clay Shirky and Judaism

  1. Harold December 18, 2008 at 3:12 pm #

    Interesting analogy.

  2. Chris_B December 19, 2008 at 3:08 am #

    Its my understanding that theres never been a shortage of unaffiliated shuls or minyans in the US. These days with all the sub splinter groups competing for who can observe the least halacha but still call themselves Jews, I’m figuring that Shirky’s thing vis-a-vis Judaism wouldn’t be all that new.

    • davidamwilensky December 20, 2008 at 1:08 pm #

      Chris_B, I’m gonna guess from this and from your other recent comment here that you’re more traditional and observant than I. That being the case, I’m sure you know that, halachically speaking, whether someone gets to call him or herself a Jews has nothing to do with degree of observance. It has only to do with their mother’s identity. So I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t waltz around the internet flashing your observance around as though it is a badge that allows you to determine the authenticity of another person’s Jewish identity.

  3. Rich December 21, 2008 at 9:49 am #

    I don’t think this is new in Judaism. In some ways, the entire function of Shabbat is to create a cognitive surplus which can then be directed to prayer and study. And I’m going to leave that as a frame, to discuss what really worries me about this video.

    It presents “cognitive surplus” as a potentially exploitable resource. Oh, it doesn’t set out to, but that seems a likely outcome. But of course, as Clay points out, this cognitive surplus is a by-product of leisure time. The moment it becomes exploitable, it ceases to be leisure.

    The safeguard against that happening in Judaism is the Hilchot Shabbat. These prevent us from reifying the products of that cognitive surplus at least until Shabbat has ended. And if we cannot reify them, they cannot be exploited. Sure, you can post about that great insight you had at Torah Study after Havdallah, but Shabbat gave you the time to play with that insight.

    Clay’s video opens for me a nightmare world that is like television in reverse, where consumer produced content is compensated through things like advertising, and leisure time becomes subsumed in the production of content for compensation. Right now the motivations to produce content are intrinsic; what happens when they become extrinsic?

  4. David A.M. Wilensky December 21, 2008 at 2:58 pm #

    I am unworried by this, Rich. I don’t know what else to say to it. Clay’s talk only excites me.

  5. jepaikin December 23, 2008 at 10:34 pm #

    I can’t speak for you, Rich, but it seems to me like you might be missing the point a little bit.

    Shirky’s argument is that television (in its pre-21st century form) couldn’t have existed without the vacuum created for it by the industrial revolution’s creation of leisure time.

    His message is not that leisure time and cognitive surplus will become exploitable, it’s that with new advances in how we communicate and share content with each other, we’re going to experience another paradigm shift vis-a-vis what we do with our media-oriented leisure time. Notice that he’s not talking about what happens when we go to the amusement park, or apple picking, or for a bike ride. That leisure time hasn’t changed (yet?). He’s talking specifically about our media-oriented leisure time (TV, internet, etc.)

    A nightmare world? Not sure you really have anything to worry about. For one, consumer produced content is ALREADY compensated through advertising, and has been for some time (think about the little Google ads on people’s blogs and youtube videos). Also, Sharky’s talking about how our motivation to create and share is OVERTAKING our motivation to just sit back and consume. I think there’s enough scientific and anecdotal evidence to strongly back that up. (See Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, Email, Blogs, and so on)

    I do agree with you, Rich, that this is not specifically something new in Judaism, but I also believe that there is a strong corollary. As people become more accustomed to life where they can easily and quickly their experiences ONLINE, they will look for OFFLINE communities where they can do the same. A small chavurah or minyan is much more suited to this than most (but certainly not all) larger shuls.

  6. jepaikin December 23, 2008 at 10:39 pm #

    OH! I meant to add. I referred to television in its pre-21st century form for a specific reason. Even, TV, too is beginning to change with noticable implications. Here are two notable examples:

    1. LOST’s innovative new media to accompany the show. The plot of the TV episodes are expounded on and enhanced through online and real-world encounters. For more info on the HUGE influence of this show, heck out

    2. CNN’s news coverage. You can watch the news live on TV, while submitting your own news footage from your cell phone, while reading and commenting about live-blogs, while tagging news articles for your friends’ review.

  7. davidamwilensky December 24, 2008 at 8:33 am #

    Yeah. What Jesse said.

  8. jepaikin December 24, 2008 at 11:06 am #

    As I think about what I wrote, I want to go back and clarify something.

    I noted that consumer produced content is already being compenated (a la Google ads and the such). The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is ENTIRELY different from “normal” compensation for creation. Here’s how:

    When an author writes a book, or a pundit comments on the news, or a sculptor creates a sculpture — they all sell them and are compensated for their work. We don’t think twice about this – they are professionals, and they need to be professionally compensated.

    When an amateur author writes an article, or a blogger comments on the news, or some graphic artist posts their images online… this can be completely different. If they aren’t professionals, then they aren’t creating things for the express purpose of being compensated for their sale. According to Rich’s train of thought, this would make them more “pure” — I completely agree.

    In that light, I don’t think there’s anything necesarrily evil or sinister about consmer produced content having a google ad or something similar… after all, the very nature of consumer content is that it’s not professional – why shouldn’t they be be allowed to be compensated for their work?

    Wow. I sounded a little capitalistic there. Eesh!
    Free healthcare. Free healthcare. Free healthcare.
    There we go :)

  9. Chris_B December 28, 2008 at 9:31 am #

    Sorry I came off harsh there. It werent meant to be a stab at you by far.

  10. davidamwilensky December 28, 2008 at 1:52 pm #

    Thanks, Chris.

  11. Chris_B December 29, 2008 at 1:43 am #


    I’d like to take another stab at answering your question of “We are seeing in large metropolitan areas, and occasionally in a few other geographic areas a new type of decentralized Judaism. These communities are what we have begun to call Emergent Communities. These communities are highly volunteer-run. They’re small and they’re highly connected to their respective Jewish communities, but not to the large organizations that have so long dominated Jewish life in America such as the OU, the USCJ, and the URJ.”

    Alot of the beauty of American Judaism is the continual re-adaptation to suit communities. There is an incredibly interesting spectrum of minyanim from the ultra left to the ultra right. One of the recent (?) buzzwords has been about unaffiliated shuls. I was reading the other day about one in NYC which meets in a Unitarian church with crosses on the wall of the meeting room. As I understood the geography, it was a stones throw or two away from an ultra orthodox neighborhood.

    When my great great grandfather arrived in the US from Russia, there were no formal shuls in the part of Tennessee he ended up living in. Sometimes informal minianim would gather in the nearest town, but at that time there was no formal affiliation. Eventually his family joined a shul which eventually later became Reform. Of course some people split off and formed their own thing, thats just how it goes.

    What I want to say is in the past and in the present, American Jews have been constantly organizing, disorganizing, affiliating and disaffiliating. Basically I think to call this continuation of what I understand as a long running theme in American Jewish life “Emergent Communities” is a new label on old wine.

    I’m a bit wary of Clay Shirky and many of those who make their income selling the idea of newness. I hope I did a better job explaining my response to your question. Its the same as what I said before but I hope a bit more clear.

  12. davidamwilensky December 29, 2008 at 8:38 am #

    That’s a very interesting comment, Chris. Thanks.

    Perhaps it is a new label on old wine, but I think there’s a subtle difference here. In the past, people gathered as your family did in impromptu minyanim because they lacked something larger. History marched them along into more official communities that eventually affiliated.

    Now, with the affiliated synagogues still a viable option, and having been there and done that, people who grow up in those communities are choosing to revert to the old state. But this time, it’s not impromptu. It’s entirely intentional.

  13. Chris_B December 30, 2008 at 3:27 am #

    I tried to address that a bit with the split offs that happened in Tennessee which I alluded to, but I think that what you are saying about impromptu vs intentional has historical precedent in the US. As I understand it, there has been a near constant stream of intentional re-organization. Some of the splittist (1) groups thrived, some lost membership back to officially affiliated groups, etc. Somewhere I have some links on some history of this in the US South, email me if you are interested.

    Side note, as it turns out, the shul my ancestor belonged to still exists in a certain form through various name changes, combinations and re-combinations. If I make it over to the USA next year I’m hoping to visit them and go see the old family grave site. Hopefully I’ll have finished my conversion by then as I’d be most happy to “meet the family” on even terms.

    1 I have no love for the radical left but they sure have provided some interesting words!