Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

I normally write extensive reviews of the books I read. I’m not able to do this with this book. Yochai Benkler’s book is so comprehensive in scope and detail (515pp) that it defies summarization. Suffice it to say that this is the authoritative book on the subjects of networks and social production. It’s a difficult read (the academic language) but rewards the reader with an unsurpassed view of the landscape it covers. In the author’s own words in the acknowledgments, “Another great debt is to David Grais, who spent many hours mentoring me in my first law job, bought me my first copy of Strunk and White, and, for all practical purposes, taught me how to write in English; as he reads these words, he will be mortified, I fear, to be associated with a work of authorship as undisciplined as this, with so many excessively long sentences, replete with dependent clauses and unnecessarily complex formulations of quite simple ideas.” Lawrence Lessig comments, “In this book, Benkler establishes himself as the leading intellectual of the information age.”

What is written here is my attempt to cover the salient points of the introduction.

He begins with, “Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done. For more than 150 years, modern complex democracies have depended in large measure on an industrial information economy for these basic functions. In the past decade and a half, we have begun to see a radical change in the organization of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment we occupy as autonomous individuals, citizens, and members of cultural and social groups. It seems passe´ today to speak of “the Internet revolution.” In some academic circles, it is positively naıve. But it should not be. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.

A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. These changes have increased the role of nonmarket and nonproprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations. These newly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games. Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.

The rise of greater scope for individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture, however, threatens the incumbents of the industrial information economy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in the midst of a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment. A wide range of laws and institutions— from broad areas like telecommunications, copyright, or international trade regulation, to minutiae like the rules for registering domain names or whether digital television receivers will be required by law to recognize a particular code—are being tugged and warped in efforts to tilt the playing field toward one way of doing things or the other. How these battles turn out over the next decade or so will likely have a significant effect on how we come to know what is going on in the world we occupy, and to what extent and in what forms we will be able—as autonomous individuals, as citizens, and as participants in cultures and communities—to affect how we and others see the world as it is and as it might be.”

He explains the emergence of the networked information economy, “The most advanced economies in the world today have made two parallel shifts that, paradoxically, make possible a significant attenuation of the limitations that market-based production places on the pursuit of the political values central to liberal societies. The first move, in the making for more than a century, is to an economy centered on information (financial services, accounting, software, science) and cultural (films, music) production, and the manipulation of symbols (from making sneakers to branding them and manufacturing the cultural significance of the Swoosh). The second is the move to a communications environment built on cheap processors with high computation capabilities, interconnected in a pervasive network—the phenomenon we associate with the Internet. It is this second shift that allows for an increasing role for nonmarket production in the information and cultural production sector, organized in a radically more decentralized pattern than was true of this sector in the twentieth century. The first shift means that these new patterns of production—nonmarket and radically decentralized—will emerge, if permitted, at the core, rather than the periphery of the most advanced economies. It promises to enable social production and exchange to play a much larger role, alongside property- and market based production, than they ever have in modern democracies.”

He makes three observations about this emergence:

  1. Nonproprietary strategies have always been more important in information production than they were in the production of steel or automobiles, even when the economics of communication weighed in favor of industrial models.
  2. We have in fact seen the rise of nonmarket production to much greater importance. Individuals can reach and inform or edify millions around the world. Such a reach was simply unavailable to diversely motivated individuals before, unless they funneled their efforts through either market organizations or philanthropically or state-funded efforts.
  3. And, likely most radical, new, and difficult for observers to believe, is the rise of effective, large-scale cooperative efforts—peer production of information, knowledge, and culture.

He states that individuals have enhanced autonomy: “The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. This enhanced autonomy is at the core of all the other improvements I describe. Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.”

The major battle to be fought is between open and proprietary models. “The battle over the relative salience of the proprietary, industrial models of information production and exchange and the emerging networked information economy is being carried out in the domain of the institutional ecology of the digital environment. In a wide range of contexts, a similar set of institutional questions is being contested: To what extent will resources necessary for information production and exchange be governed as a commons, free for all to use and biased in their availability in favor of none? To what extent will these resources be entirely proprietary, and available only to those functioning within the market or within traditional forms of well funded nonmarket action like the state and organized philanthropy? We see this battle played out at all layers of the information environment: the physical devices and network channels necessary to communicate; the existing information and cultural resources out of which new statements must be made; and the logical resources—the software and standards—necessary to translate what human beings want to say to each other into signals that machines can process and transmit. Its central question is whether there will, or will not, be a core common infrastructure that is governed as a commons and therefore available to anyone who wishes to participate in the networked information environment outside of the market-based, proprietary framework.”

He writes about four choices: “There are four methodological choices represented by the thesis that I have outlined up to this point, and therefore in this book as a whole, which require explication and defense. The first is that I assign a very significant role to technology. The second is that I offer an explanation centered on social relations, but operating in the domain of economics, rather than sociology. The third and fourth are more internal to liberal political theory. The third is that I am offering a liberal political theory, but taking a path that has usually been resisted in that literature—considering economic structure and the limits of the market and its supporting institutions from the perspective of freedom, rather than accepting the market as it is, and defending or criticizing adjustments through the lens of distributive justice. Fourth, my approach heavily emphasizes individual action in nonmarket relations. Much of the discussion revolves around the choice between markets and nonmarket social behavior. In much of it, the state plays no role, or is perceived as playing a primarily negative role, in a way that is alien to the progressive branches of liberal political thought. In this, it seems more of a libertarian or an anarchistic thesis than a liberal one. I do not completely discount the state, as I will explain. But I do suggest that what is special about our moment is the rising efficacy of individuals and loose, nonmarket affiliations as agents of political economy. Just like the market, the state will have to adjust to this new emerging modality of human action. Liberal political theory must first recognize and understand it before it can begin to renegotiate its agenda for the liberal state, progressive or otherwise.”

This book is well worth studying and would make a great text for discussion group. If anyone out there has read the book and would like to collaborate on such an endeavor, please let me know.

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press, 2006, 515pp

The Wealth of Networks (PDF)

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