A General Theory of Information Policy

by Dan Hunter on May 30, 2006

Yochai Benkler has been working on questions of intellectual property policy and telecommunications policy for some time now, but his work has always seemed to operate slightly orthogonally to the canon du jour. He has always been respected as probably the smartest guy in the room at any given conference, but when the hot topic was, say, the problems with the political economy of copyright, Benkler was talking about spectrum commons; or when everyone wanted to talk about digital rights management or search engine bias, Benkler was talking about autonomy as a normative basis for information policy, or the social production of knowledge . It wasn’t immediately apparent what were the connections between his interests, although it was clear that there was a theme that bound them all. More generally, those who thought about the myriad issues within internet policy, telecommunications regulation and intellectual property could see that all of them might be parts of a grander whole, and wondered what that whole might look like.

In The Wealth of Networks Benkler demonstrates how his interests are connected and how they have always been part of a grander vision. But he also provides something close to a General Theory of Information Policy for the networked age that begins to explain how we should think about topics as different as spectrum policy, copyright, user-generated content, network neutrality…well, the list pretty much encompasses all questions within internet law and policy. For someone used to reading legal scholarship in the cyberlaw arena, this book is remarkable. Academic legal writing tends to be driven by current policy problems—in the cyberlaw arena obvious recent examples include peer-to-peer filesharing and the music industry, the threat of digital rights management, the economics of copyright term extensions, problems with the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and so on. This is not a criticism of the legal scholarship; indeed it is one of the great strengths of legal writing that it responds to the immediate concerns of society in a way that can guide policy and law making.

Benkler’s approach is different, much more in the vein of, say, Manuel Castells. He tries to articulate the changes in society generated by access to a network that allows about a billion people (and growing) to connect with each other virtually free, virtually instantaneously, and without typical expected barriers to entry and transaction costs that have driven our approach to policy to date. The social changes rendered by the internet is by now a venerable topic, and we’ve had ten years of cyberutopianism (the net will change the way people think, work, sleep, play, eat, drink, etc, etc) followed by the inevitable response of cyberskeptics patiently explaining (as though to impaired children) that the net changes little, the economics remains the same, governments will still regulate it, big business will still dominate it, etc etc. Benkler manages to revive the initial utopianism of the early days of the net, but does so in a way that captures the revolutionary opportunity of socially-produced information goods, without lapsing into the kind of boosterism that characterized early cyberutopianism and the ensuing dot com bubble.

The central argument of The Wealth of Networks is that the “digital networked economy” allows for a new modality for the production of information goods—a modality that Benkler usually terms “peer production’—that has hitherto been unrecognized by economists, policy-makers and scholars. Benkler begins by providing a range of examples of socially produced information goods, such as the Wikipedia, open source software, blogs, and so on. He explains how the modality that underlies the production of these goods is opaque to most theories of economic development, and makes the case for more careful attention to the significance of this modality. He also takes enormous effort to defend this modality and his vision of the internet from the myriad arguments that incumbents and skeptics might make against them. Thus, he defends “peer production” from concerns generated by economics and liberal theory. If you have ever wondered how open source might be economically sustainable, then you will find the answer here. You will also find arguments about the role of distributed networks in justice, international development, and freedom. It is here that his work moves from the descriptive to the normative, and so it’s possible to make the case that this is a general theory of how the internet is and should be.

It’s not hard to agree with Larry Lessig’s assessment that The Wealth of Networks is the most important recent book in the field. It generates a series of new questions about the nature of information and the policies that we have to regulate and produce it. But that said, it’s not without problems. Aside from the usual quibbles that reviewers always have—Was it really a good idea to draw an implicit comparison between the significance of Smiths’s The Wealth of Nations and this work?—two particular problems stand out. First, the book suffers from a lack of focus. One could take at face value that the book is about social production as an alternate modality of production; but this view has some problems. Notably, if read like this then one starts to wonder what isn’t produced by social production processes. Everything gets viewed in this light: so a discussion of NGO contributions to agricultural practice in the developing world is presented as being primarily about peer production when it seems to me to be a fairly pedestrian example of underproduction of certain types of goods as a result of the limits of private markets, and hence the need for public subsidy for this sort of good. This is not to say that any of the examples presented are wrong; in some form they all illuminate the potential of social production of various types of goods. But I don’t think it helps the argument to view so many types of innovation as being about social production when the link is tenuous.

There are other examples (the scale question of networks, the history of radio ownership, a critique of Sunstein’s ludicrous internet polarization thesis, etc etc) which made me wonder whether an alternate view of the book might not be more accurate: that it is a series of observations about the character of the internet, how it has a distributed nature that generates particular opportunities and dangers for policy, and what our policy responses should be. This is not inconsistent with the “peer production” thesis; it simply means that the observation about peer production of information goods is but one of the cyberspace policy questions that Benkler wants to address. This reading of the book indicates the scale of Benkler’s ambition, but does demonstrate that the scope of the book is broader than indicated in the introduction (and subtitle).

The second serious concern is not with the thesis but rather with the presentation, and specifically the strange view that the book seems to have of its audience. There are only a small number of endnotes for each chapter, and at best these mention (briefly) a couple of the authors cited in the text. And technical acronyms like “http” or “html” are defined in brackets, and PayPal is patiently explained to be “a widely used low-cost Internet-based payment service”. This approach signals that this is an accessible, populist work, like others in this field by people such as Larry Lessig (Code, The Future of Ideas, Free Culture), Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Anarchist in the Library) or Cass Sunstein (Republic.com). But readers without a solid grounding in economics, liberal theory, political science and jurisprudence (and possibly network theory and internet architecture) are going to struggle through the book’s 500-or-so pages. It’s not an easy read, and Benkler doesn’t pander to the audience by dumbing down the arguments. Many sections are elaborately worked through, addressing all manner of likely concerns about the thesis presented that, for example, the internet demonstrates an intriguing scale of granularity for the purposes of democratic engagement, or why a number of the typical accounts of autonomy are consistent with Benkler’s view of social production. But this means that the book is really an academic work got up to look like Wired magazine. This poorly serves the scholarly readers because, although Benkler references the authors and theories on which he relies, many of his positions are controversial and reliant on arguments and positions that are eternally contested. Benkler is exceedingly fair in his account of, say, the principles of autonomy, redistributive justice or welfare economics. But each of these concepts admits of a range of views that simply cannot be dealt with in a scholarly fashion in a few pages and a couple of footnotes.

Unfortunately this approach also poorly serves the interested non-academic reader who—thinking this work is exactly what she needs to understand why Ohmynews is so important, or why Wikinews isn’t working—picks up the book expecting it to be both smart and accessible. It’s definitely smart, but it’s not built for the general reader. The danger is not so much that the reader won’t understand what is going on, so much as that she will wonder why she doesn’t get it. Benkler’s prose is routinely described as “dense”, which I once took to mean “if you don’t understand this then you’re dumb and it’s your fault”. I fear that too many readers have the same fear that the problem is with them, that they’re too dull or lazy or busy to take in the lessons here. It’s not impossible to follow what Benkler is saying, but I wished that he would say it directly. It’s clear that he can. The text fairly comes alive when it talks about the recursive/iterative moderation system behind Slashdot, or when discussing the role of blogs in the Trent Lott, Diebold, and “BoycottSBG” cases. But there are large swathes that are a challenge for those who, like me, are lazy.

It’s churlish, I know, to criticize a tour de force on the basis of difficult expression. (And I have deleted and reinstated this paragraph about ten times as I try to decide whether to say anything about it; I still wonder whether it’s worth commenting on this). If the work signaled that it was only scholarly, and was only talking to the limited range of scholars who address these issues professionally, then this would not be a failing and I wouldn’t say anything. But I’m worried that too many of the peer-producers—the blog writers, the open source software gurus, the amateurs who create for the love of it; in short the people who this book is written about—will pick up this work in the hope of understanding how their creativity fits into the grand scheme of innovation, and what their role will be in the amateur production sphere that promises to change the way that we view information goods within society. And they may not get past the introduction.

I hope that they will try. This is a revolutionary book, in all sorts of ways. The future of innovation and creativity is different from the past. Amateur hour looms: we are entering the era when commercial producers of content will no longer dominate. We should be grateful that we have Benkler’s exhaustive account of the significance of this radical change.

{ 1 trackback }

Crooked Timber » » Introduction: The Wealth of Networks seminar
05.30.06 at 9:43 am



alegalacademic 05.30.06 at 1:39 pm

I’m a law professor, and I confess I have never been able to understand Benkler. I read the words, but I can’t understand the meaning of his sentences. Given that, I think it’s fair to point out the difficult language he uses: You’re right that it’s a major impediment to even subject matter experts understanding his work.

In fact, the difficulty of Benkler’s writing makes online symposia like this all the more important. We need you all to explain what Benkler is saying: If you can do it in simple language without mumbo jumbo jargon, it will be a major accomplishment and will really advance the scholarly debate about his work.


Henry 05.30.06 at 1:59 pm

I don’t know whether this is true in a general sense. At least I, as a non-legal academic haven’t had any problems in understanding his arguments – nor do a number of non-academics whom I’ve seen referencing the book in the blogosphere (e.g. Matt Yglesias, Julian Sanchez). Clearly there’s a problem there for some readers – but I’m not sure whether it’s a problem of academic jargon. Perhaps, to some extent, it’s a problem of having lived and tried to think through the issues of collaboration etc – much of what Benkler says seemed to me to make intuitive sense, because it’s a fully worked out account of ideas that I’d tried to work out for myself, without succeeding in any systematic way. I suspect that if you’ve had this experience, the arguments of the book are much more transparent.


Luis Villa 05.31.06 at 3:00 pm

The odd thing is that, as a speaker, I find Yochai incredibly lucid and entertaining. The contrast between the density and rigor of his written works and the accessibility of his spoken word is pretty stark.

Comments on this entry are closed.