Clay Shirky has some explaining to do about his work with Libya
Over the weekend, Evgeny Morozov asked about my consulting with the Libyan government in 2007. In March of that year, I was invited by Monitor Consulting to come to Boston to speak to a Libyan IT minister about using social software to improve citizen engagement in coastal towns. The idea was that those cities would be more economically successful if local policies related to the tourist trade were designed by the locals themselves.
Shirky goes on to admit that he was naive, but one issue remains open: how much money was Shirky paid for the work.
My Shirky may be naive but no one would call him stupid. There is no way in 2007 he did not know that Gaddafi and his regime had carried out a number of terrorist attacks against Americans in Europe. He could not have not known the nature of Gaddafi's regime and that any profit made in the tourist industry, which Shirky claims he had hoped to promote via consulting, would certainly line the pockets of Gaddafi and his forces. At the time Bush and Blair were desperate to make it seem that Gaddafi had changed as a result of the war in Iraq, but I don't think Shirky had any such stake in the war in Iraq and his calculations were likely not as naive as he now claims.
And since 2007 a great deal has been learned about the Monitor Group project. We now know for certain that under the cover of pro-democracy work the Monitor Group was conducting a lucrative PR campaign for Gaddafi with the expressed purpose of raising his profile in the Western world, while doing nothing to promote democracy. Shirky may have not known that in 2007, but he most certainly must now and it would be good to know more details about Skirky's relationship with the Monitor Group.
To be fair we live in a global world where many of us find ourselves in bed with less than honorable partners. The United States finds itself more and more co-dependent and the butchers of Tienanmen Square. We burn oil produced by dictators who don't recognize the fundamental humanity of women or have journalist killed. He impose drug laws we know are destroying communities in South America, we invest in nations we know are destroying old growth forests and wiping out communities and species that live in them.
In the past 30 years the rise of a new free market has also seen the decline in the very idea of daily ethics. In the rush to profit we forget about Tibet, natives of the rain forests, women of Saudi Arabia, journalists in Russia, democrats in China, and even the poor in our own nations. America has even seen a political movement with no other purpose than to continue to deny health coverage to 30,000,000 people. Moral goodness has clearly stopped being much of a force in our day to day lives.
Its not that Capitalism is innately evil: its only that are often innately humans evil. Or maybe just innately lazy about their moral principles. Or just innately careless.
But more important than wikis and blogs to building a better future is our ability to see when we have made a grave error. We are rich in technology but poor in humility. Clay Shirky's avoidance of stating how much he profited from work with Libya makes his entire defense of the power of Web technology to promote human development seem hallow.
One thing the cyber-community has proven itself to be is fickle. If Shirky does not come clean soon about the extent of his revenues off work with Libya he might find himself sharing a virtual dog house with Julian Assange.
There are plenty of people in Tunisia and Egypt who actually have used the Internet to change their society, and I think we would all rather read books by people we can feel confident are real heroes.
UPDATE: After doing some more research it is now pretty obvious that Shirky is almost certainly down playing his work for the government of Libya under Gaddaf and that or until this year he was playing it up for some reason. In also every bio we can find of him on blogs, and his profile on Amazon. In fact on his Amazon profile Libya is the only government mentioned.
Now if he had only had one meeting with the government of Libya and, as he claims, he resulted in nothing, why was he mentioning the government of Libya again and again in his work after that time?
Its hard to escape the conclusion that Mr Sharky was part of the Monitor Groups efforts to raise the status of Gaddafi and Libya, that he was repeatedly speaking about this work to lend his own status as a Internet Utopian to the regime in Tripoli. The extent to which Shirky was working his experience with Libya in to articles. For example when a article is titled “Social production is the great opportunity of our age,” says web maven Clay Shirky and then goes on to mention Clay Shirky's work for Libya in the first paragraph there is a clear giving to Libya the prestige of the article itself. When his Amazon page for Cognitive Surplus also mentions his work in Libya we can only conclude that he was not just involved in one off with Libya IT in the hopes of doing something good, but was using Monitor group to profit off his reputation by selling it to Libya.
This is much more than the moral compromises many of us need to make to play the bills, it looks more and more as a well thought out plan to profit by associating his extremely optimistic ideas about technology with the ruthless regime of Libya, and the only motivation could have been profit.
Clearly Shirky is now too morally compromised to serve as an effective spokesman for the cyber-dissident movement. Perhaps he should take some of the money he made with Monitor group and take a nice long vacation. Hopefully NYU will carry out a full investigation of the ethics of their professor in this matter.