The Setup


What do people use to get stuff done?

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky

Writer, teacher (NYU)

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Clay Shirky, and I've done a bunch of things related to the Internet and especially social media. In the mid-90s, I was the CTO of Site Specific, a web shop in Manhattan, and then a partner at an Internet accelerator. Since 2001, I've had a job teaching at NYU, working on the social and economic effects of the Internet.

At NYU, I have a joint appointment in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (which everybody just calls ITP) and the Journalism department. I wrote a couple of books about social media -- Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus -- and I'm currently trying to wrap my head around the Internet's effect on higher education. (Spoiler: Good news for cheap or great institutions, ungood for mediocre ones, double plus ungood for mediocre, expensive ones.)

What hardware do you use?

I not really much of an 'optimize hardware' guy, so my hardware setup is more Jawa Sandcrawler than Imperial-class Star Destroyer. This is partly bias -- I have never cared much for computers, but I love networks with all my heart -- and partly habit. My first computer was a PowerBook 100 with a 20M drive, most of which went to the OS and apps, so I got used to treating it like a portable VT100 terminal, and stored everything online.

I used Macs until 1995, when Windows provided built-in TCP/IP and a much more stable platform for Netscape. I added a desktop running Red Hat in 1996. I used BeOS for a month or so in 1997, which was beautiful but didn't play well with others.

I dropped Windows in 2000, when OS X became Unix-with-a-non-suck-GUI and stopped crashing. Since then, everything I run, with the exception of one phone, sits on top of some *n[iu]x kernel. I have a 12.04 USB installer on my keyring.

A working machine for me has a browser, a telnet window, and a text editor, so I can keep machines around for a long time. Right now, I have (and I am counting this up for the first time) a Chromebox as my work machine, an 11" MacBook Air as my home machine, a 15" MacBook as the family machine in the living room, an Ubuntu netbook as the 3D printer base station (where I'm typing this while babysitting a print run for my son, who is going on a class trip to China and wanted to print out some little plastic tchotchke's to bring his Chinese hosts, which strikes me as approximately hilarious.)

The kitchen machine is a cheap-o Chromebook, which has a pretty lousy case and keyboard but is fine for recipes and playing NPR. The living room screen toggles between a Roku, a Chromecast, and a Raspberry Pi. My other work machine (at my Journalism office) is a 15" MacBook with a dead screen that I use as a desktop. My actual "I carry it with me" laptop is another 11" MacBook Air.

My wife has a work and home laptop and an Android, and my son has a laptop for school and an iPhone, but there I'm just tech support. (My daughter came by to ask what I was writing, and wants everyone to know that her recent 10th birthday should, by her lights, entitle her to an iPhone too. Duly noted.)

I've tried iPads and Nexi tablets, but didn't like them -- they are both consumption-centric and concentration-destroying, which is for me a deadly combination. I do have two Kindle Paperwhites (two because I lost one in a pile of papers and replaced it and then found it again) which I love. The Kindle's best feature is that it offers no way to check my email. Auxiliary features include not being able to look things up on Wikipedia and not being able to play Subway Surfer.

I carry two phones. My web phone is a Galaxy S, which includes a physical keyboard (a dying amenity.) The S, like most 'bar of soap' designs, is optimized for lots of things, with the notable exception of synchronous voice. I'm on enough committees and in transit enough that I need to be able to talk for an hour or two while moving without worrying about the battery, so I also carry an LG flip phone (my one non-*n[iu]x tool] which is useless in every respect except the two crucial ones: call quality is great, and the battery lasts for days.

I keep a charged battery for each phone on the charging table at home, in case I need to hotswap, because I'm Indy pit crew like that. I've had all the children I want to, which is good because having two phones in my pocket all day every day can't be optimal for my motile gametes.

And what software?

Like John McAfee, I like strong espresso. Unlike John McAfee, everything else.

Because I write a lot and hack a bit, my "one application", in the Joel Spolsky sense, is a text editor. And because I am a "the computer is a door, not a box" guy, I've always treated Save, Distribute, and Backup as a single operation.

My writing tools have gone through three phases: 1993-2003, mainly emacs in a telnet window. (vi is an over-engineered tool for typing EDITOR=emacs; export EDITOR.) Then from 2003-2012, it was mainly BBEdit and WebDAV (latterly Dropbox), and, starting in '12, a mixed period where I moved all my writing to Google Docs and coding to Sublime. (My browser is Chrome because duh.)

I have enough machines of various sorts around that I can generally try any new app I want to take a look at. I keep an iPod Touch and a Windows box in the office, but most iPh?o[d|(ne)] software comes out for Android as well now. The last time I booted Windows to do anything other than download an .iso was to try BioShock Infinite (good story, amazing world, meh combat, like everyone said.)

My private source of shame is that I have never been That Guy with strong, thoughtful musical tastes and well-groomed playlists. I was happy with Napster, I was happy with, I'm currently happy with, variously, Amazon Cloud Player, Banshee, iTunes, Pandora, Rdio, and clicking on random YouTube and Soundcloud links my friends post on Meatspace. My principal requirement in a music tool is that I can listen to Toots and the Maytals at least once a day, which requirement all of said tools handle nicely.

What would be your dream setup?

I'd like to finish the transition and go back to really net-centric hardware (I treated my Powerbook 100 as a netbook avant la lettre) but I do just enough coding to want python running locally, and I've never found a Chrome extension that is anything like as good as Sublime for coding. (What do the Google engineers working on ChromeOS use for dogfood coding apps, I wonder?)

I dislike what I've seen of Mavericks -- the earlier removal of "Save as..." in native apps was already a portent of The End Times, as if more were needed, and Mavericks looks to go further in that direction -- so my next "carry it in my bag" machine will probably be either an Acer Chromebook or a Lenovo running 13.04.

That having been said, I actually don't want a "dream setup." I know people who get everything in their work environment just so, but current optimization is long-term anachronism. I'm in the business of weak signal detection, so at the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.

After several years, I've just stopped using Netvibes in favor of Digg's newsreader. Digg doesn't work as well as Netvibes (and I may ultimately switch back), but I'm learning something about what content syndication on the web is like right now. The switches of my office desktop to a Chromebox and my writing to Google Drive were based on the same logic, as was the switch from Perl to Python some years ago.

Some of those changes stick, most don't, but since every tool switch involves a period of disorientation and sub-optimal use, I have to make myself be willing to bang around with things I don't understand until I do understand them. This is the opposite of a dream setup; the thing I can least afford is to get things working so perfectly that I don't notice what's changing in the environment anymore.

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