Questioning Accidentalism

I’ve noticed over the last couple of years the rise of an interesting new theory of human history, which I’ll call Accidentalism. Although it may have broader implications, it has tended to be applied mainly to the history of media. In short, the theory posits, or, more typically, takes as a given, that the media of the past developed as a result of a series of accidents. Technological accidents begot economic accidents, which begot accidents of production and consumption, and human beings tumbled around in all those accidents like socks in a dryer.

Let me point to two examples I’ve come across in the last couple of days. In an email exchange about “the future of publishing” between Sean Cranbury and Hugh McGuire, McGuire argues that the printed book, as well as our attachment to it, is a fluke. We’ve been deceived by randomness. “Our notion of a book as such a fixed thing,” he says, “is an accident of history, an accident of technology.” This technological accident led to other accidents in production and distribution, such as “the fixed model of the publishing house.” Cranbury replies: “I love a number of things about your last message, but invoking … the notion of ‘accidents’ — of history or technology or whatever — that become adopted standards which we are reluctant to relinquish, are especially invigorating ideas.”

In a speech at Harvard earlier this week, Clay Shirky also gave voice to the “accident” theme, this time in regard to printed newspapers rather than printed books: “Some time between the rise of the penny press and the end of the Second World War, we had a very unusual circumstance — and I think especially in the United States — where we had commercial entities producing critical public goods … Now, it’s unusual to have that degree of focus on essentially both missions — both making a profit and producing this kind of public value. But that was the historic circumstance, and it lasted for decades. But it was an accident.” Shirky, in this particular speech, doesn’t explain the nature of this “accident.” But he did lay out his view more fully in an earlier essay about newspapers, in which he portrayed the traditional newspaper business as an accidental result of the technology of printing:

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident … That the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental … For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Now, I understand what the Accidentalists are getting at: Technology builds on technology, and at any given time in human history only certain technologies are in the realm of the possible and of those only a subset will actually be developed and put to use. Those technologies will in turn influence the means of production and the modes of consumption both directly (through the characteristics of the technologies themselves) and indirectly (through the economic tradeoffs inherent in using the technologies). Every technology, every means of production, every mode of consumption is hence provisional. Something better or at least cheaper or more convenient may come along tomorrow and displace what we depend on today.

All that’s true. But is it really accurate to describe the process as fundamentally accidental? Does the word “accidental” accurately reflect the complexities of technological and economic development? I don’t think it does. In fact, I think it’s difficult to imagine a poorer choice of word. When you describe an event or a thing as an accident, what you are doing is draining it of all human content. You are saying that human intention and will and desire played no part in its occurrence. A volcano is an accident in human history (if not natural history), and if it’s a big enough one it may well influence the course of that history. But the the book, the printing press, the publishing house, the newspaper, and the newspaper company are not volcanoes. Their development was guided not just by blind circumstance but by human intent and desire. They represent, not just in the abstract but in their concrete forms, something that people wanted and that people consciously brought into being, for human purposes.

Take the technology of the book. Far from bursting forth suddenly from Gutenberg’s press in the fifteenth century, the development of the book, as Eric Havelock, among others, has explained, began with the development of symbols to represent human language many millennia ago. In the eighth century BC, or thereabouts, the Greeks created a particularly refined version of these symbols, distilling the entirety of spoken language into an alphabet consisting of a mere 24 phonetic symbols – a brilliant system that much of the world continues to use today, in one form or another. The words and sentences formed from the letters of the alphabet, and other writing systems, have been inscribed on a series of writing media – the clay tablet, the papyrus and then the parchment scroll, the wax tablet, the series of wax tablets bound with string, the codex of pages of parchment or paper bound together to form the scribal book, and the printed book. Each of those general media technologies, in turn, were subtly or dramatically reshaped by all manner of technological refinement throughout their individual histories. The scribal book, for instance, advanced enormously for well over 1,000 years before Gutenberg invented his movable type press. Indeed, Gutenberg’s bible was a meticulous copy of the form of a scribal book. And, in the 550 years since Gutenberg, we’ve seen enormous refinements to both the printing press and its products.

Is the printed book, then, “an accident of history, an accident of technology”? Of course not. The myriad refinements in the technology of the written and published word over the last few millennia were not mere byproducts of a mechanical and inhuman process of blind technological advance. They were shaped by human intent. The wax tablet was invented not because man suddenly had the technologies of the wooden frame and of wax at his disposal, but because society wanted a cheap, informal writing medium that would be easy for individuals, and particularly students, to use and reuse to take notes and jot down ideas. The wax tablet, in other words, reflected a human desire to make writing more personal than had been possible with tablets and scrolls. The wax tablet was anything but an “accident.”

The crucial refinements in the form of the scribal book – punctuation marks, paragraph divisions, chapter divisions, tables of contents, etc. – were all expressions of human desire and need, not the results of random technological or economic accidents. Yes, when Gutenberg invented his press, he was working within the limits of technological possibility. But his inspiration came from his desire, which was also a broad desire on the part of society as a whole, to widen the availability of the codex and other written works. The printing press did not create people’s desire to read books; people’s desire to read books created the printing press. To say that the printed book was an accident is not only profoundly cynical; it’s profoundly foolish.

The same goes for newspapers and the newspaper business. The form of both was indeed heavily influenced by the cost of buying and running a press and transporting bundles of paper – circumstances matter a great deal – but that doesn’t mean that their forms were “just an accident.” Unlike the book, the newspaper only becomes possible when the mass production of the written word becomes possible. And it was not long after Gutenberg’s invention of the press that the first broadsheets appeared in cities. Because people naturally desire, for practical and intellectual reasons, to know what’s going on around them – a desire that more than 1,500 years earlier had led Julius Caesar to have the news of the day posted on public billboards across the Roman empire – the broadsheets proved very popular. In response to that expression of human desire – a desire strong enough that people were willing to pay to have it satisfied – entrepreneurs began to set up newspaper businesses and hire reporters and organize systems of distribution.

Of course, once people started getting the news, they naturally wanted more of it. But there were, alas, strict limits on the amount of money an average citizen could pay for a newspaper. So even as their circulation grew, it remained difficult for newspapers to fulfill people’s desire for more and more various news. Expansion required more capital and more employees than they could afford. Fortunately for both the newspaper reader and the newspaper publisher, merchants were looking for ways to publicize their goods to a wider clientele, and newspaper advertisements provided a perfect fit for their needs. So in the early years of the 1700s, newspapers began to run ads, providing a new source of income that allowed them to better fulfill the desires of readers, by, for example, paying foreign correspondents and, later, photographers, while also making more money themselves. Some of the new advertising money also went to the hiring of copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers, again in response to people’s desires, in this case for accurate, clearly written reports.

This was, to be sure, a system of economic subsidization but it was, equally, a system of human symbiosis, in which the various desires of publishers, journalists, advertisers, and citizens came into a happy and mutually supportive balance. To see the arrangement only in economic terms is to miss much of the story, which is a story not of accident but of conscious, purposeful action undertaken within the constraints of technological and economic possibility.

I’m going to resist the temptation to get into a discussion of today’s news business, or the broader question of whether it’s all that unusual for public goods to be produced in commercial systems, but I will point out that as the web unravels the system of economic subsidization on which newspapers depended, it is also unraveling the system of symbiosis that brought great benefits to the newspaper reader.

There is some truth in Accidentalism, but it is only a small part of the whole truth, which is much messier and much more interesting. The Accidentalists are promoting a simplistic and distorted version of media history. They are also ignoring an important implication of their own theory. If we suspend our disbelief and accept the Accidentalist view that both the media of the past and the means of their production were accidents, then we have to also view the media of today and the means of their production as accidents. If the book is a historical accident, then the web is a historical accident. If the newspaper publisher is a historical accident, then the blogger is a historical accident. To think otherwise – to think that all mankind’s past blundering has brought us suddenly to a perfected state, that the long chain of accidents has been broken in (surprise!) our very own lifetime – is to abandon any pretense of a consistent and rational view of history and leap into the realm of quasi-religious faith. We were lost, and now we’re found!

And there’s the rub, I think. Accidentalism is a theory of convenience. It is, it seems to me, a fantasy version of history conjured up to support a popular and largely faith-based ideology, an ideology built on the belief that our new digital media landscape represents a great human advance over all that’s come before. Accidentalism provides an easy way to denigrate and dismiss the past: Oh, our poor, benighted forebears: they never even realized that all they held dear was merely accidental. “Accident,” I hardly need point out, is a word with negative connotations. Those to whom accidents happen are victims. Every time we pick up a printed book or newspaper, the Accidentalists imply, we turn ourselves into victims of technological accidents.

Accidentalism, in other words. provides the perfect backdrop for the liberation mythology promoted by many of the web’s most ardent proponents, which is built on the idea that old technology put us in chains and new technology is breaking those chains. In order to underscore (and place beyond debate) the societal and personal benefits of the web, they feel compelled to paint a weirdly dark caricature of the past, portraying those human beings who had the misfortune to live before, say, 1990 as passive and enervated, victims of an (accidental!) media complex that circumscribed and diminished their lives and thoughts. One need not be a fan of old-school mass media to see that this picture is a clumsily rendered fake.

“We should always be suspicious of the contempt that flows beneath the surface of idealization,” wrote Paul Duguid in an essay collected in the 1996 volume The Future of the Book. “And we should note how often the characterization of ‘them’ is in fact a self-aggrandizement of ‘us.’” Duguid goes on to describe how the “language of liberty” has been wrapped around the new digital technologies of information creation and transmission:

Where once we had ghosts in machines, now we have information in objects like books. Technology is thus called upon to do for information what theology sought to do for the soul … The book, no longer its incarnation, has been reduced to the incarceration of the word. But a technological Prospero seems at last to be at hand to free the informational Ariel from the cleft pine (or wood products) in which he has been trapped … [The liberationist view] is both corrupting and misleading. As with so much optimistic futurology, it woos us to jump by highlighting the frying pan and hiding the fire. In the face of such arguments, we do better to remember … how Ariel quickly discovered that the same magic that liberated him from the tree indentured him to Prospero.

Any theory of the future that requires a distortion of the past should be greeted not with applause but suspicion.

24 Comments

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24 Responses to Questioning Accidentalism

  1. Trying to put a metric on accidentalism is like comparative history studies. We can’t assess how much or how little is worth talking about.

    Its like historically trying to assess the difference between the French Revolution and The Long March’s impact on humanity. There’s no way to know the difference if they were swapped round.

  2. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, not the Greeks. As for the broadsheet format of newspapers, instead of, say, a magazine format like The Economist (which insists it is in fact a newspaper), it is due to the fact early newspapers were too expensive to purchase individually and would be plastered on a wall, often by a tavern-keeper seeking to bring customers in, much as large-screen TVs feature prominently in sports bars today. While accidents do happen, form follows function more often than not.

  3. Nick,

    Nooooo….. Ugh. You break my heart. You got one really wrong.

    First principles: a volcano eruption is not an accident. Nobody talks like that. “Oh did you hear, Mt. St. Helens blew up!” “Really? How did that happen?” “Oh, it was an accident.”

    No, an accident is building Pompei and settling at the foot of a volcano you didn’t realize was quite so active. It’s an accident that you deliberately built your home where, years later, you and yours are over-run by flowing lava. That is an accident.

    An accident is a thwarting of intent in the conduct of a deliberate act. I meant to make a safe left turn at the intersection but I was momentarily blinded when the recently observed supernova lit the night sky and so, while I might otherwise have hit the breaks in time, instead I got slammed into by the other car.

    I think that what McGuire is at least trying to say is that in building out the book publishing industrial complex we intended to build something that would last, well, let’s call it “forever”. And yet (his claim via you, not my claim), oops – technology has yielded better substitutes much sooner than anyone expected. The book industry actors meant to build one thing, externalities imposed, they (the claim goes) fail – they had an accident.

    Now, I don’t put words in Shirky’s mouth but I’m still allowed to play a game of “What would Shirky say?”. So:

    Shirky would say: everything we do at this scale, as societies, ends in an accident. Accidents like the failure of newspapers are the tollbooths of progress. This is almost a kind of Taoist eternal truth: “A good traveler has no fixed plans / and is not intent upon arriving. / A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. / A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.” The only way to avoid accidents is to adopt an attitude of having no greater intention than to go with the flow. With no other intention, no accident is possible.

    Perhaps I give Shirky too much credit, in my imagination ;-)

    It would follow that their isn’t a utopian thinking behind sentiments of “Books and newspapers replaced by web browsing? Well, Good Riddance and Welcome, respectively!” The substitutes – the new things – are just where we drift to, going with the flow, until we encounter our next accident. The book was not eternal. The newspaper was not eternal. The web is not eternal. The accident is eternal.

    It is not utopianism you are fighting against. It is nihilism, dressed in (as you say) self-aggrandizing gluttony.

    -t

  4. Fazal: check out the wikipedia article “Alphabet”. For its absence of vowels, apparently technically the Phoenicians did not have a true alphabet. (I learned things the same way you did: the Phoenicians first — but, as is fairly clear from the Wikipedia article, either they had an alphabet but were not first or, more conventionally, the Greeks were first.

    -t

  5. Nick Carr

    Fazal,

    I didn’t say that the Greeks invented the first alphabet; indeed some believe that the Phoenician alphabet wasn’t the first alphabet. As Tom already noted, the Greek was the first comprehensive phonetic alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet was only consonants, no vowels (which is why it was rendered obsolete by the Greek alphabet).

    Tom,

    You’re right about volcanoes, when viewed in natural terms (I edited the passage, to acknowledge this). I was trying, ineptly, probably, to speak in the language of the Accidentalists, who would, I think, categorize an eruption as “an accident in human history” – ie, something that happens without any human involvement and hence, following the dictionary definition of accidental, happens, or appears to happen, “by chance, unintentionally, or unexpectedly.” As for your analysis of what the Accidentalists really had in mind, I think you’re wrong.

    Nick

  6. Nick,

    Can’t bring myself to agree with you that a volcano eruption is an “accident in human history”. I think the word you are looking for is calamity. It’s only “accident” in the context of the impact on intentional human acts, like building a city or village or house on the side of the volcano. The eruption wasn’t the accident – the (retrospectively) poor judgement about where to settle is the accident.

    We agree, at least, that the Accidentalists are not saying something regarding as true. We differ mainly in how to characterize their error. I was trying to point out how they will rhetorically slip out from under your criticisms here (yet still be annoying).

    And, yes, a very dark version of Shirky might at least be more interesting than the cheerleading version, in an intellectually honest debate with him.

    -t

  7. Note: Nick made and quickly retracted a funny but overly glib (for someone in his position) statement that I am responding to with my last paragraph about a “dark version of Shirky”.

    The joke is mostly lost and Nick invited me to either leave my comment stand or fix that. I’ll leave it. A Dark, Hard-Core Nihilistic Sharky is a fun thing to imagine, regardless of what Nick wants to say in his professional capacity. And I hope that Nick doesn’t mind my choice here to leave it up with this much of an explanation.

    -t

  8. Gary Frost

    In media history you can see continual infilling of interstices when parent developments such as electronic communication, photo imaging, digital encoding, audio recording compile into a single delivery device. Other arrays, beginning with primate dexterity and kinetic discovery, also play out the theme of infilling in media history.

    An infilling theory of media history has consensus. It is frequently noted that media accumulate and prompt new interdependences with old media borrowing new technologies as in the case of the digital paper book . And today there is the surprising interdependence of print and screen.

    Why would media history be such a contradiction to accidentalism? Perhaps because, like metabolism, it must be fulfilled on the fly at the same time that communication functions are sustained. Media history is an out of body metabolism. Just reflect on all the chaos, churn and reverses of wider history in the 20th century and then notice how coherent, even tranquil, media history was during the period. There was a steady pulse of presses and broadcasts. The Linotype composed the news, day after day, uninterrupted for the entire century.

    Media history tranquility and slow pace of change continues today. There is only the excitement of infilling many more interstices and accommodating more deliveries to single devices. Automated searching and screen libraries are utilities and Google Books is the latest version of a publisher’s “complete works” in a “new and improved” edition.

  9. And then you have folks like me at the other extreme. I think the book and the web were inevitable. Rerun culture any way you want and you’ll get these forms again, in the same order. I am a technological determinist. Which I doubt Nick is.

    So if you are not an accidentalist, and believe technological evolution is contingent (in Gould’s terms), and you are not a determinist and believe technological evolution is inevitable, then what is your theory?

  10. Nick Carr

    I think the book and the web were inevitable. Rerun culture any way you want and you’ll get these forms again, in the same order.

    I’m pretty sure I agree with this, actually. I would argue, though, that you don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the strong form of technological determinism in order to believe it. The inevitability may be as much a result of human nature, or human need and desire and capability, if you prefer, as of technology itself. In other words, if technology has followed an inevitable course, it may not be because technology “demanded” that course but rather because human beings “demanded” that course.

    Does that make sense? I think it does.

    If we place technological determinism on one side of the spectrum and technological instrumentalism on the other, I would say I’m definitely on the determinist side. I think McLuhan was right in calling instrumentalists “somnambulists.” But I’m not way over on the determinist side; I don’t think technology is an autonomous force, as I’m pretty sure Kevin Kelly does.

    As for my “theory,” I don’t have one. I prefer the act of observation to the act of theorizing.

  11. hmmmm …

    Please forgive me, but some parts read like a discussion about semantics. I am not sure what Clay Shirky and others did mean exactly, when they were using the term “accidental”, but for me (english is not my first language) it just means “not planned”.

    I believe that technological progress is more or less an evolutionary process like the development of species. There is an element of randomness in it (‘accidents’?) and a selective element (fitness in a certain environment. This is not a directed process (at least not in my belief system), but it is a quite effective process which leads to continuous improvements – in a certain environment.

    An often quoted example is the evolution of mammals living in water (whales and dolphins), which look like fish because two independent evolutionary processes came to similar end results in a similar environment.

    This happened with technological progress, too. Different cultures – widely seperated in space and time – came to similar technological solutions over the history of mankind.

    I am not sure if “The Book” or “The Newspaper” were inevitable developments, but – given the human desire for news (and gossip) – it was very likely, that they would “happen”. The single steps leading to the development of the industry that produces newspapers theses days, were not planned, though – one could call the accidents in my humble opionion, whithout implying that “The Newspaper” was a random development which could have happened – or not.

    But I guess (just guessing; can’t read minds), that the main intent of his speach was to emphasize the fact that the results of technological progress are not “planned” and that the results we see today are not the summit of technological or cultural achievement which have to be preserved. Every now and and then a new development comes along, which seems to serve the “environment” (or human’s needs) better, more efficiently etc. And then the old solution might be discarded over time.

    This is the same misconsception which some people seem to have with biological evolution, assuming the the human race is the crown of creation, which will exist until the world ends and nothing will ever “replace” (

  12. I’d agree that viewing media as ‘accidental’ is taking a very narrow and ultimately incorrect view of history and technological development. What is perhaps more interesting is the theoretical basis of the ‘technological accident’, as articulated by Paul Virilio and others. This suggests that all technologies have within themselves the seeds of their own destruction: invent the railroad, invent the train wreck, etc. It would be interesting to see how this could apply to media technologies.

  13. Nick, I agree with much of what you say in your post. But I suggest that, to use a journalism term, you’re “burying the lede”. The reason Shirky and others use the term “accident” is because they want to delegitimize the existing journalism institutions. If it was an “accident”, then the key is not “draining it of all human content” (which sounds like mere poetry), but more at reason to exist (human content as in power politics). Because if they can successfully portray current mainstream media as “just an accident”, then any sort of future public support or assistance to newspapers, etc. is futile – nay, fighting against the tide of history itself. This connects to where you say “then we have to also view the media of today and the means of their production as accidents”. The problem here is that you’re viewing the word “accident” in strictly mechanistic terms. It is NOT – it is used as a political term, as a way of saying something is beyond saving and don’t even try. The only proper thing to do then is act like a venture capitalist and throw money at web startups (a point of view that is obviously very popular with venture capitalists and the conference-club that wants to make money off web startups).

    In my view, this is much clearer framework to understand those sorts of speeches.

  14. Nick says, “As for my “theory,” I don’t have one. I prefer the act of observation to the act of theorizing.”

    There is no understanding without theory. A theory is a pattern which connects the dots. Without a theory all you have is dots.

    Monkeys are good at observing, not so good at theorizing. You most definitely have a theory, but you may not be able to articulate it yet.

  15. Hi Nick

    Great article and excellent discussion.

    To Mr Finkelstein’s comment: I can not speak for Clay Shirkey or Hugh but I can certainly say that, for myself, I have no agenda to ‘delegitimize the existing journalism institutions’.

    It’s a process of adaptation and flux. Resilient, responsive and fluid institutions will continue to succeed and flourish.

  16. Nick Carr

    Kevin, It sounds like you would define any argument as a theory. In which case, I guess I have plenty of theories. Nick

  17. Great take on that awful term. We need a more neutral one and that already exists: Chance.

    The way you argue about the printing press is in retrospect which leans itself to a straight arrow history. You talk linear. History is non-linear, there are always unforeseeable circumstances/constellations. I recommend reading 10.000 Years of Nonlinear History by DeLanda. Specifically his take on the term bifurcation (lend by Deleuze) explains that much more all encompassing.

  18. There are two threads here: media communication and evolution. A media is channel through which language is used to transmit information. Since the spoken language happened first we can say that the first media was air. As you read each word in my sentence, the “wheels” of the neurological state machine rotate until it is in a similar state to my brain: the result is called communication. Language is the method used by humans to synchronize behavior to achieve common goals. Writing allowed that to be extended beyond the real-time aspect of vocal interpersonal communication to larger groups over space and time. Minsky proposed in Society of Mind that the brain actually is a “society of structures and processes” that work together to produce the phenomena we call intelligence. They do this through neurological communication channels. Pretty obviously symbolic language provides the same type of synchronization between brains allowing the larger social societies to form. If ultimate convergence of communication technology is to form a tight coupling of all the minds of the race together then it doesn’t’ make sense to say that some permutation of the media was an accident because another was not chosen. At any given, time the technology is going to try to conform as best as it can to that goal and over time converge into the Society of Societies of Mind.

  19. Van der Leun

    Seems to me that anything that trods so hard upon Kevin’s toes has something to it.

    Not that I don’t admire and respect Kelly. I do. But he is a bit of a true believer, if not the Pope of the High Church of Technology.

  20. Mike B

    Isn’t what is most interesting about the accidentalists what they are not saying?

    It used to be that someone like Clay Shirky would argue that the internet permits the invention of new ways of doing things, which threatens the old (hierarchical, corrupt) institutions, e.g. big record labels challenged by new forms of decentralized distribution.

    But this isn’t at all what is happening to newspapers. Technology threatens this institution even though it has failed to create any alternative form of journalism.

    So the argument shifts: newspapers are a contingent form that has come and gone, critics of technology are just reifying journalism into something centered around a traditional newspaper because they lack the imagination to see what technology can accomplish, etc.

    Even though Shirky admits that in this case, technology is very destructive, predicting that smaller towns that can’t sustain accountability journalism will become rife with corruption, he argues that this is not really a failure, promising that there will be new models, they just haven’t quite arrived in time.

  21. daliroot

    “We should always be suspicious of the contempt that flows beneath the surface of idealization,”

    hmm.. that kind of defines “isms”. “isms” in one form or another have always been popular with editors and reporters….

    Pertaining to Accidentalism… as an Engineer I would have to view it as a valid subset of the Quantum Nature of everything. (Evidence of Quantumness is pretty well supported by science and all modern tech.)

    Let’s throw some I-Ching?

  22. The use of the word “accident” in terms of historical events is like the use of the word “disorder” for “entropy” in thermodynamics. It implies a kind of bigoted view that that nature has to conform to mental concept of how things should be. Because we can imagine that alternative events might have occurred doesn’t mean that could have. On the macro cosmic level Newton still rules. Matter and energy are going to interact and result with predicable results. Evolution could have put our eyes on top of each other rather than side by side. Does it make a different to say that both were possibilites a when in fact the event that determined it was not random but the confluence of an almost infinite number of finite deterministic events?

  23. Diablevert

    In other words, if technology has followed an inevitable course, it may not be because technology “demanded” that course but rather because human beings “demanded” that course.

    Well, sure. But I don’t think that defeats Shirky or the other Accidentalists, as you term them. Technology is shaped by human desire, for sure. But being made, the physically, literal, and economic constraints of given technology shape what it is used for and what other ends it might be used to accomplished — and it is these unforseen outcomes that Shirky means when he says that Walmart paying for the Baghdad bureau is an accident. A newspaper is a perishable tool for grabbing and holding the reader’s attention. The human desire for news was what invented it; but the merchant’s desire to sell stuff is what sustains it. These seperate interests come into alignment through the physical medium of the paper. If the players can serve those interests without the paper, than the paper cannot survive. That’s an accident. Technology shapes culture, by inventing new ways to serve the eternal desires…

  24. This discussion reminds me of the Nature vs Nuture debate. My wife calls me “wish-washy” because I refuse to be drawn into either camp. The same is true of the debate in this stream.

    What was the discovery of the X-ray? An accident, or a non-accident? Or for that matter penicillin?

    What about the auto industry? I think there was little that could be deemed “accidental”. Perhaps others can enlighten me.

    I have no doubt that Kevin Kelly is correct when stating “Rerun culture any way you want and you’ll get these forms again, in the same order”. However, this does not prove the case for determinism because the forms may have been (slightly?) different. The degree of difference would indicate – in this case – the degree of “accident” or the degree of “design”.

    Nick, I read your posts with reat interest and really enjoyed ‘The Big Switch’, so I don’t mean any disrespect when I state that but your quote from Duguid cuts both ways: “We should always be suspicious of the contempt that flows beneath the surface of idealization,” wrote Paul Duguid in an essay collected in the 1996 volume The Future of the Book. “And we should note how often the characterization of ‘them’ is in fact a self-aggrandizement of ‘us.’”