The Shirky Principle

Why does double loop learning matter? Why did we have to read it in a subject I thought was about computers? Double loop learning is about recognising the assumptions we bring to our learning and being able to look at these. Not because they are wrong – they might be ideal – but because these are, in Arygris’ terms – ‘constraining variables’. They provide constraint, and they can change. We always need constraints, but the wrong ones get in the way.

The internet is causing immense disruption to media industries. The ‘constraining variables’ these industries use to address how to evolve to survive in an online, distributed, deeply networked age is why they are struggling. Let’s use journalism and newspapers as an example. Step one: ignore the internet, since we are ‘real’ news, with professionals and so on, not just amateur opinion. Step two: oh, that didn’t work, so we need a big web presence, and maybe even a blog or two (which won’t be a real blog, the best journalism blogs are by journalists blogging outside of newspapers). Step three, still loosing market share and audience, we’ll berate and yell that all that other stuff isn’t really journalism, yes some of it is being written by the same people that, as journalists, we’d interview for the story, but that’s different (followed by self serving list of why it is different, where different = not as good). Step four, redesign web site for mobile and tablet, but still don’t have easy/automatic interconnection between stories, or let readers drill down into more detail and complexity – even leave the site for that sort of content – since, you know, it’s actually about page views for advertisers. Step five, still in decline, revert to old media model of a paying for content because, you know people will. (Except if I have to pay for online news will I subscribe to The Age or, perhaps, The Guardian, or The New York Times? Oh, perhaps you think I’ll go for The Age for local sport, but if I’m an AFL, soccer or cycling nut then in each case the newspaper’s coverage is a small sliver of what I’m actually interested in, and able to get, online, so really, it is only a generalist news service in an age of specialised media. And now of course the once maligned public broadcaster finds themselves in the box seat since their charter is to provide the service for their citizens, as a state funded right, which means once I charge for my content my readers move sideways to the ABC, or even the free news services from the BBC.)

Model I single loop learning all the way along. At no point has ‘what is journalism’ or ‘what is news’ been reconsidered. That remains the constraining variable (how it is produced, by who, and its forms and then mode of presentation). To make this visible to you, imagine news media didn’t exist (this is speculative design), but the internet did. If you were inventing journalism and news media today, from scratch, with mobile media and the internet as it technological beginning (and not the printing press), what would it be, what forms would it take? Answer that well, and you have a future business, and why most traditional media companies are slowly dying.

As internet theorist Clay Shirky rather astutely observed “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution” (this is the Shirky principle). For journalism, the problem is going away (discussing and presenting what is happening in the world) because we all sort of know what is happening, but rather than respond to that, journalism/the press will simply become more shrill about its own validity as ‘truth’ mistaking that as its purpose and future.