Mediating the Social Contradiction of the Digital Age

by Jack Balkin on May 30, 2006

There is a social contradiction to the digital age, a fancy way of saying that two forces are pulling in opposite directions. The lowered cost of creating, collating, copying, sharing, and transmitting knowledge and information goods pulls toward democratic participation in information production and free access to information. These features of the digital revolution mean that more and more individuals can participate in the benefits of the information economy and in the production (and co-production) of information and knowledge goods.

But the very same features and forces that make the digital revolution possible mean that knowledge and information goods become an increasingly large component of global wealth and power. Moreover, the digital revolution and associated telecommunications technologies allow greater investments in knowledge goods and expanded markets to recoup those costs.

These features of the digital revolution give some businesses strong incentives to reap as much profit as they can by propertizing knowledge and information goods and extracting rents. These incentives are made all the more urgent because knowledge and information goods have relatively high first copy costs and low to zero marginal costs. Hence, for many businesses, increasing monopolization and propertization of knowledge and information is a particularly attractive strategy, a strategy that they have pursued through successful lobbying efforts at both the national and international level.

Thus, at the very moment when the digital revolution holds out the promise of genuine democratic participation, businesses driven by the twin needs to maximize profits and protect themselves from competition have tried to assert control over the knowledge economy through expanding intellectual property rights and securing legal protection for proprietary architectures, undermining the Internet’s democratic promise. This collision of interests is not accidental: Industrial, closed and proprietary models of information production and democratic, open, and commons-based models are made possible by the same technology; the struggle between these two models of information production is the social contradiction of the digital age.

How can these opposing trends be reconciled? Yochai Benkler’s argument in The Wealth of Networks is that the contradiction can be resolved by two features of the digital revolution. The first is that not all successful business models in the knowledge economy have rested or will rest on maximizing the exploitation of intellectual property or closed and proprietary architectures. The second is that the digital networked environment makes possible and gives increased salience to commons-based peer production methods for information production. In both cases, but especially in the second, democratic participation in information production is wholly consistent with efficient economic production and the growth of the knowledge economy. Indeed, preserving a space for democratic participation in the means of production is the best way for the knowledge economy to flourish.

The terms “social contradiction” and “participation in the means of production” might make you think of Marx and the socialist ideal. But Benkler is not talking about about centralized or state-planned information production; rather, if anything, he is urging further decentralization and privatization of the methods of information production. It is important to remember that in Benkler’s commons based production, people still own their own property. (For example, people access spectrum commons using their own computers). Individual property and liberty rights are simply allocated differently than they are in closed or proprietary architectures. Benkler’s key claim is that allocating property rights differently leads to both greater participation and greater economic productivity.

In Chapter Five Benkler offers the parable of three different methods of producing public entertainment: the worlds of Reds, Blues, and Greens. Reds are hereditary storytellers who have the duty and the privilege to tell stories to the rest of the population. Blues elect a new storyteller every night by majority vote, and this person tells stories before the whole community. Finally, in the Green community, people tell stories to each other all the time whenever they feel like it.

In this parable, the Reds represent pre-modern hierarchical methods of information production, the Blues represent modern mass communication driven by market forces, and the Greens represent commons based peer production. Benkler thinks that the Green world is a better world. It offers more autonomy and more opportunities for more people to participate in cultural and information. Moreover, by using the example of storytelling—a form of entertainment that is now fully commodified in our era—Benkler is also adverting to the fact that there is no clear boundary between democratization of economic production of information and democratization of the realms of culture and democracy.

The parable of Reds, Blues and Greens exemplifies the hopeful and optimistic message of the book. It also allows us to see the wager that Benkler is making on the future. The question is one of tradeoffs. Will moving from a Blue world of proprietary and industrial information production to a Green world of open architectures and commons based peer information production trade greater participation for less quality? Will commons based peer production of information goods gain equality at the cost of efficiency? Will a Green world be a world of mediocrity—whether in stories, or software, or telecommunications access—that is more equal but less efficient and contains less that is excellent?

Benkler considers and rejects the argument that the Green world will produce substantially less quality, arguing that commons based peer production can produce its own methods of accreditation and quality control. He also rejects the assertion that efficiency will be sacrificed. Although the types of stories produced may be different in the Green world than the Blue world, they will be just as good for the social purposes that these stories serve; and they will gain the added advantage of producing more stories told by more people, who will become more than mere passive spectators (as in the Blue regime) but also active producers of their informational world.

This is, in fact the book’s great leap of faith—the argument that peer production is an equally efficient (or sometimes even more efficient) method of producing information goods that is also superior in terms of autonomy and participation.

The burden of the book is to demonstrate this optimistic claim—that democracy and efficiency are served by commons based production methods without significant tradeoffs—in a wide range of areas, ranging from software to culture to journalism to agriculture. But the best argument for Benkler’s position is that the choice is not as stark as his presentation sometimes suggests. In fact, the choice we face is not between the Blue world of proprietary, industrial information production and the Green world of commons based peer production. For the industrial model is not going away anytime soon in any of the areas that Benkler identifies. For example, as I have pointed out in the area of free expression, the blogosphere does not displace traditional media outlets; rather it routes around them and “gloms on” to them; it engages in nonexclusive appropriation of information and knowledge produced through industrial methods and uses elements of them to make a wide variety of new things with a wide degree of cultural participation. Routing around and glomming on is simultaneously a form of independence and dependence, of subversion and homage, of breaking away and bricolage.

We can make similar arguments about many of the other forms of information production that Benkler identifies; they do not displace industrial methods of information production but rather build on top of them, sometimes leading to new synergies and syntheses between older and newer forms. This is already happening in the realms of journalism and mass culture; I would not be surprised if we could not tell similar stories in each of the other areas that Benkler discusses.

Thus, the real choice we face is not between a Blue world of industrial information production and a Green world of commons based peer production. It is rather a choice between a largely Blue world dominated by a relatively small handful of players and a Blue-Green or Teal world with substantial contributions from a wide range of actors using commons based forms of information production layered on top of industrial forms that respond to and adjust to the commons based forms. How that layering occurs will be different in the realms of software production, telecommunications, scientific research, agriculture, journalism, education and entertainment. But in each case we will have multiple methods of information production, that, one hopes, will bring us the best of both worlds. This is perhaps the strongest reason to believe that Benkler’s optimistic vision is also a realistic one.

But we are by no means assured of this happy outcome. I have already noted that social contradiction of the digital age features a strong pull toward proprietary and industrial models of information production backed up by law. As a result, Benkler’s book wavers between an optimistic description of what the digitally networked economy has produced and will produce and a warning that these bounties will be squandered if the legal regime goes in the wrong direction—the direction in which it is currently headed. This alternation between prediction and warning is not accidental, for much as Benkler might wish that features of the digitally networked environment and information economics will lead us inevitably toward a blessed world of peer production, he well understands that the political economy of information production has repeatedly pushed the law along a different path. Benkler shows us a vibrant world that we are moving toward and might yet achieve; but it is up to us to realize it.



Russell L. Carter 05.30.06 at 11:26 am

This analysis seems to assume a monolithic nature to the underlying communication fabric, which in turn is governed by a monolithic slate of evolving laws. I think we may see (oh dear, I can’t help myself) a balkanization of environments. For instance, there’s no technical or cultural reason why much of South America couldn’t implement some reactionary alternative to the evolving US infrastructure.


john c. halasz 05.30.06 at 1:13 pm

Isn’t the “social” contradiction between openness of access and opportunities for expansion of quasi-monoply proprietary control also an intersectoral economic contradiction, as well? The large investment costs of building productive infrastructure face-off against the lowered barriers of entry and costs of information content production. Wouldn’t that suggest a role for publicly financed investment in infrastructure as a public good?


James Wimberley 05.31.06 at 7:41 am

A piece of good news: an appellate court in California has just issued a ruling (O’Grady vs. Apple) tha gives web journalists a total, Nelsonian victory over Apple’s attempt to stifle their publishing inside information about a new Apple product. Jack Balkin was a signatory of one of the amicus briefs, so congratulations. Hat tip to Michael Froomkin.
The judgement cites online references extensively, including Wikipedia, as authorities for the changing meaning of internet terms.


paul 05.31.06 at 8:04 am

It seems to me that this simple parable fails in any world where the accumulation of stories, aka intellectual capital, over time becomes an important component of social or economic value. In the current “democratic”/decentralized/whatever part of the web, the pattern that comes out most strongly to me is that of many people telling stories for free (or paying to tell their stories) while others sell access, directly or indirectly, to the compendium of stories. Hard to produce, easy to distribute means that there’s a very good business model in outsourcing production to people who won’t (or can’t effectively) demand significant compensation for their efforts, and then taking a cut of whatever money comes in from distribution.


yochai 05.31.06 at 4:12 pm

not clear to me what the implication of paul’s post is. if it means that the parable cannot mean that everyone interacting in an environment will be noncommercial and freely share, then I agree. But I don’t see either what I said, or what Jack said, as a claim about everything converging to a noncommercial world. As I understand what Paul said, the business model of offering a platform and distribution, and charging a cut, for people who don’t want to or can’t charge for their expression, but nonetheless want to create it and distribute it, is a nice example of the ability of market and nonmarket to coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship. This is part of my claim as to why being skeptical of regulatory regimes like copyrights is not “anti market,” but against certain kinds of regulations of creativity that curtail nonmarket expression.

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