Saturday, August 14, 2010


Yochai Benkler has written a masterful book on social production and networks. As I read this section last night I was struck with the thought that autonomy is the unspoken word at the center of a lot of controversy in our society. The conversation should be focused on autonomy overtly:
  • How much autonomy is required for individual freedom?
  • When does my autonomy begin to impinge on yours?
  • How does my autonomy empower yours?
  • What’s the boundary between my autonomy and limits placed by government, corporate and religious interests?
  • How do government, corporate and religious entities empower my autonomy?
  • How do we protect the personal autonomy that is emerging through the Internet, social production and web 2.0 software?
“The autonomy deficit of private communications and information systems is a result of the formal structure of property as an institutional device and the role of communications and information systems as basic requirements in the ability of individuals to formulate purposes and plan actions to fit their lives. The gains flow directly from the institutional characteristics of commons. The emergence of the networked information economy makes one other important contribution to autonomy. It qualitatively diversifies the information available to individuals. Information, knowledge, and culture are now produced by sources that respond to a myriad of motivations, rather than primarily the motivation to sell into mass markets. Production is organized in anyone of a myriad of productive organizational forms, rather than solely the for-profit business firm. The supplementation of the profit motive and the business organization by other motivations and organizational forms-ranging from individual play to large-scale peer-production projects-provides not only a discontinuously dramatic increase in the number of available information sources but, more significantly, an increase in available information sources that are qualitatively different from others.

Imagine three storytelling societies: the Reds, the Blues, and the Greens.

Each society follows a set of customs as to how they live and how they tell stories. Among the Reds and the Blues, everyone is busy all day, and no one tells stories except in the evening. In the evening, in both of these societies, everyone gathers in a big tent, and there is one designated storyteller who sits in front of the audience and tells stories. It is not that no one is allowed to tell stories elsewhere. However, in these societies, given the time constraints people face, if anyone were to sit down in the shade in the middle of the day and start to tell a story, no one else would stop to listen. Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides which stories to tell. Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night by simple majority vote. Every member of the community is eligible to offer him- or herself as that night's storyteller, and every member is eligible to vote. Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere. Everyone tells stories. People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes in very large groups. Stories in each of these societies play a very important role in understanding and evaluating the world. They are the way people describe the world as they know it. They serve as testing grounds to imagine how the world might be, and as a way to work out what is good and desirable and what is bad and undesirable. The societies are isolated from each other and from any other source of information.

Now consider Ron, Bob, and Gertrude, individual members of the Reds, Blues, and Greens, respectively. Ron's perception of the options open to him and his evaluation of these options are largely controlled by the hereditary storyteller. He can try to contact the storyteller to persuade him to tell different stories, but the storyteller is the figure who determines what stories are told. To the extent that these stories describe the universe of options Ron knows about, the storyteller defines the options Ron has. The storyteller's perception of the range of options largely will determine the size and diversity of the range of options open to Ron. This not only limits the range of known options significantly, but it also prevents Ron from choosing to become a storyteller himself. Ron is subjected to the storyteller's control to the extent that, by selecting which stories to tell and how to tell them, the storyteller can shape Ron's aspirations and actions. In other words, both the freedom to be an active producer and the freedom from the control of another are constrained. Bob's autonomy is constrained not by the storyteller, but by the majority of voters among the Blues. These voters select the storyteller, and the way they choose will affect Bob's access to stories profoundly. If the majority selects only a small group of entertaining, popular, pleasing, or powerful (in some other dimension, like wealth or political power) storytellers, then Bob's perception of the range of options will be only slightly wider than Ron's, if at all. The locus of power to control Bob's sense of what he can and cannot do has shifted. It is not the hereditary storyteller, but rather the majority. Bob can participate in deciding which stories can be told. He can offer himself as a storyteller every night. He cannot, however, decide to become a storyteller independently of the choices of a majority of Blues, nor can he decide for himself what stories he will hear. He is significantly constrained by the preferences of a simple majority. Gertrude is in a very different position. First, she can decide to tell a story whenever she wants to, subject only to whether there is any other Green who wants to listen. She is free to become an active producer except as constrained by the autonomy of other individual Greens. Second, she can select from the stories that any other Green wishes to tell, because she and all those surrounding her can sit in the shade and tell a story. No one person, and no majority, determines for her whether she can or cannot tell a story. No one can unilaterally control whose stories Gertrude can listen to. And no one can determine for her the range and diversity of stories that will be available to her from any other member of the Greens who wishes to tell a story.

The difference between the Reds, on the one hand, and the Blues or Greens, on the other hand, is formal. Among the Reds, only the storyteller !hay tell the story as a matter of formal right, and listeners only have a choice of whether to listen to this story or to no story at all. Among the Blues and the Greens anyone may tell a story as a matter of formal right, and listeners, as a matter of formal right, may choose from whom they will hear. The difference between the Reds and the Blues, on the one hand, and the Greens, on the other hand, is economic. In the former, opportunities for storytelling are scarce. The social cost is higher, in terms of stories unavailable for hearing, or of choosing one storyteller over another. The difference between the Blues and the Greens, then, is not formal, but practical. The high cost of communication created by the Blues' custom of listening to stories only in the evening, in a big tent, together with everyone else, makes it practically necessary to select "a storyteller" who occupies an evening. Since the stories play a substantive role in individuals' perceptions of how they might live their lives, that practical difference alters the capacity of individual Blues and Greens to perceive a wide and diverse set of options, as well as to exercise control over their perceptions and evaluations of options open for living their lives and to exercise the freedom themselves to be storytellers. The range of stories Bob is likely to listen to, and the degree to which he can choose unilaterally whether he will tell or listen, and to which story, are closer, as a practical matter, to those of Ron than to those of Gertrude. Gertrude has many more stories and storytelling settings to choose from, and many more instances where she can offer her own stories to others in her society. She, and everyone else in her society, can be exposed to a wider variety of conceptions of how life can and ought to be lived. This wider diversity of perceptions gives her greater choice and increases her ability to compose her own life story out of the more varied materials at her disposal. She can be more self-authored than either Ron or Bob. This diversity replicates, in large measure, the range of perceptions of how one might live a life that can be found among all Greens, precisely because the storytelling customs make every Green a potential storyteller, a potential source of information and inspiration about how one might live one's life.

All this could sound like a morality tale about how wonderfully the market maximizes autonomy. The Greens easily could sound like Greenbacks, rather than like environmentalists staking out public parks as information commons. However, this is not the case in the industrial information economy, where media markets have high entry barriers and large economies of scale. It is costly to start up a television station, not to speak of a network, a newspaper, a cable company, or a movie distribution system. It is costly to produce the kind of content delivered over these systems. Once production costs or the costs of laying a network are incurred, the additional marginal cost of making information available to many users, or of adding users to the network, is much smaller than the initial cost. This is what gives information and cultural products and communications facilities supply-side economies of scale and underlies the industrial model of producing them. The result is that the industrial information economy is better stylized by the Reds and Blues rather than by the Greens. While there is no formal limitation on anyone producing and disseminating information products, the economic realities limit the opportunities for storytelling in the mass mediated environment and make storytelling opportunities a scarce good. It is very costly to tell stories in the mass-mediated environment. Therefore, most storytellers are commercial entities that seek to sell their stories to the audience. Given the discussion earlier in this chapter, it is fairly straightforward to see how the Greens represent greater freedom to choose to become an active producer of one's own information environment. It is similarly dear that they make it exceedingly difficult for any single actor to control the information flow to any other actor. We can now focus on how the story provides a way of understanding the justification and contours of the third focus of autonomy-respecting policy: the requirement that government not limit the quantity and diversity of information available.

The fact that our mass-mediated environment is mostly commercial makes it more like the Blues than the Reds. These outlets serve the tastes of the majority-expressed in some combination of cash payment and attention to advertising. I do not offer here a full analysis-covered so well by Baker in Media, Markets, and Democracy-as to why mass-media markets do not reflect the preferences of their audiences very well. Presented here is a tweak of an older set of analyses of whether monopoly or competition is better in mass-media markets to illustrate the relationship between markets, channels, and diversity of Content. In chapter 6, I describe in greater detail the Steiner¬Beebe model of diversity and number of channels. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that this model shows how advertiser-supported media tend to program lowest-common-denominator programs, intended to "capture the eyeballs" of the largest possible number of viewers. These media do not seek to identify what viewers intensely want to watch, but tend to clear programs that are tolerable enough to viewers so that they do not switch off their television. The presence or absence of smaller-segment oriented television depends on the shape of demand in an audience, the number of channels available to serve that audience, and the ownership structure. The relationship between diversity of content and diversity of structure or ownership is not smooth. It occurs in leaps. Small increases in the number of outlets continue to serve large clusters of low-intensity preferences-that is, what people find acceptable. A new channel that is added will more often try to take a bite out of a large pie represented by some lowest-common denominator audience segment than to try to serve a new niche market. Only after a relatively high threshold number of outlets are reached do advertiser-supported media have sufficient reason to try to capture much smaller and higher-intensity preference clusters-what people are really interested in. The upshot is that if all storytellers in society are profit maximizing and operate in a market, the number of storytellers and venues matters tremendously for the diversity of stories told in a society. It is quite possible to have very active market competition in how well the same narrow set of stories are told, as opposed to what stories are told, even though there are many people who would rather hear different stories altogether, but who are in clusters too small, too poor, or too uncoordinated to persuade the storytellers to change their stories rather than their props.

The networked information economy is departing from the industrial information economy along two dimensions that suggest a radical increase in the number of storytellers and the qualitative diversity of stories told. At the simplest level, the cost of a channel is so low that some publication capacity is becoming available to practically every person in society. Ranging from an e-mail account, to a few megabytes of hosting capacity to host a subscriber's Web site, to space on a peer-to-peer distribution network available for any kind of file (like FreeNet or eDonkey), individuals are now increasingly in possession of the basic means necessary to have an outlet for their stories. The number of channels is therefore in the process of jumping from some infinitesimally small fraction of the population-whether this fraction is three networks or five hundred channels almost does not matter by comparison-to a number of channels roughly equal to the number of users. This dramatic increase in the number of channels is matched by the fact that the low costs of communications and production enable anyone who wishes to tell a story to do so, whether or not the story they tell will predictably capture enough of a paying (or advertising-susceptible) audience to recoup production costs. Self-expression, religious fervor, hobby, community seeking, political mobilization, anyone of the many and diverse reasons that might drive us to want to speak to others is now a sufficient reason to enable us to do so in mediated form to people both distant and close. The basic filter of marketability has been removed, allowing anything that emerges out of the great diversity of human experience, interest, taste, and expressive motivation to flow to and from everyone connected to everyone else. Given that all diversity within the industrial information economy needed to flow through the marketability filter, the removal of that filter marks a qualitative increase in the range and diversity of life options, opinions, tastes, and possible life plans available to users of the networked information economy.”

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press, 2006

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