I missed this when he first wrote it but it is an interesting commentary on the prospects of traditional newspapers. Here I want to call attention to this point and use it for a different purpose:
“Institutions reduce the choices available to their members. (This is Ronald Coase’s famous argument about transaction costs.) This reduction allows better focus on the remaining choices they face.
The editors meet every afternoon to discuss the front page. They have to decide whether to put the Mayor’s gaffe there or in Metro, whether to run the picture of the accused murderer or the kids running in the fountain, whether to put the Biker Grandma story above or below the fold. Here are some choices they don’t have to make at that meeting: Whether to have headlines. Whether to be a tabloid or a broadsheet. Whether to replace the entire front page with a single ad. Whether to drop the whole news-coverage thing and start selling ice cream.
Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made. These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.
Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood an Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views.
That dual reduction of choices masks an essential asymmetry, though. Institutions are designed to reduce they choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 am, and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not.” -Clay Shirky
Note the reference to “frozen choices.”
Currently I am reading (My first Kindle book) The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine Democracy, by Suzanne Mettler, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2011.
Mettler writes of how the under the surface arrangements which condition and constrain public action, sought and secured by interest groups or incidentally created by government action and then exploited and supported by those interests that did not seek them but have found ways to benefit from them, undermine democracy in the US.
Shirky, writing about institutions, in particular newspapers, and Mettler, writing about political democracy are both writing as I see it about “frozen choices.”
Whether on the right or the left, I think much of the anger we see expressed by people as they consider the coming election is because they see their choices as “frozen” and they hear about the interests benefiting from the “submerged state” that is creating the freeze. Whether they will find a means to break the ice in this election or future ones, I don’t know; perceptions are slow to develop effective strategies and move to the active phase but they are also unforgotten once revealed.
Both parties could benefit from dealing effectively (and could suffer greatly from being deceptive about their actions) with this bi-partisan anger at its source.
BTW, Shirky’s whole post, on its own merits about newspapers, is worth serious attention.
BTW2, I haven’t finished the Mettler book but I think it too is worth serious attention.