First, I would like to thank all the participants in the seminar for their generosity in time, effort, and spirit. It is a rare treat to have such a collection of intelligent and knowledgeable individuals comment on one’s work; more rare yet is to have such fair minded and thoughtful remarks. I hope to be able to reciprocate with an equally fairminded response to the main claims each of the participants have made. Of the readers I beg patience, then, as each comment is substantial and each deserves, in turn, a response. These are mostly designed to be read each section in companion to the commentary to which it responds.
Henry Farrell emphasizes the role of social norms, rather than legal institutions, in defining the future of the networked public sphere. But before turning to that main point, I want to emphasize that I agree with Farrell’s characterization of the angle that the book provides for the question: “what’s left?” I suggest a strong emphasis on the practical capabilities and freedoms of individuals and a heavier dose of skepticism about the need and advisability of affirmative government action, as opposed to government action in a facilitating mode, than have traditionally been the “left” positions. I think the networked information environment requires and enables liberals (in the American colloquial sense) to refocus on the abilities of individuals acting alone and in voluntary association with others. But it is also important to recognize that the same set of phenomena offers an opportunity for libertarians to adopt a more sophisticated model of what constrains liberty. In particular, the relatively new vintage and the clearly regulatory history of what passes for “property” and “markets,” such as wireless spectrum “property rights,” copyrights, or patents, makes clearer the fact that these are nothing more than detailed and highly imperfect and coercive regulation. The common roots of these currently quite distinct political orientations are exposed in this technical-economic-social context in a way that they were not in the industrial system. These observations requires libertarians, no less than progressives, to examine the potential of actors supposedly acting in markets and enforcing legal regulations they dub property to constrain liberty.
But to the substance of Farrell’s argument, which focuses on the importance of prosocial norms in the construction of the peer production processes in general, and of the networked public sphere in particular. This is an important claim, and I want to take it up in characterizing an important research agenda. But first, a bit of self-defense. Farrell claims that I, as a lawyer, am more concerned with formal institutions than social scientists are, who are focused on norms, to which I am insufficiently attentive. I thought that I had done just that in several chapters. In chapter 4, when I discuss the economics of peer production, I specifically focus on the interaction of law, technology, and norms as mechanisms to stabilize commons-based production. When I speak in chapter 7 of what characterizes the networked public sphere, the norms of “here, see for yourself,” linking to others, and transparency, which are of a similar kind, if not identical in content, to those Farrell characterizes—authenticity, linking, and attribution—are central to my claim about how the networked public sphere differs from the “trust me, I have authority” model of mass media. Finally, in chapter 11, the main chapter on institutional ecology and the legal battles, I talk about institutional ecology precisely in terms of the interaction of law, markets and business practices, social practices, and technology; when I characterize the various pressures for and against commons-based production, I give the cultural glorification of hackers the same status as laws prohibiting circumvention-device hacking. Perhaps because I am a lawyer I am at a loss to see how one could be more attentive to the role of norms, as compared to law, without falling into the fallacy that formal law doesn’t matter at all. The critical point is that law is an appropriate focus when it is aimed at shaping the underlying economics and social dynamics. If a law will pass that will force computer manufacturers to build glorifed TV sets optimized for a 5000 channel broadcast world, as the MPAA has sought since the introduction of the Fritz Chip, that will have a strong and overriding effect on the set of feasible actions open to people—irrespective of their social norms. These are the kinds of interventions that I seek to diagnose, and to whose negative effect I most directly turn my attention when I move from diagnosis in the first part, and normative analysis in the second, to prescriptive policy commentary in the third.
But it is much more interesting and fruitful to engage Farrell’s critique as a research agenda, rather than for me to defend my own work from the criticism that it lacks sensitivity to this important issue. Clearly, from what I have said about the role of law up to this point, I agree with Farrell that norms are susceptible to being screwed up through altered incentives. I don’t think what he calls “the norm of authenticity” is so embedded in the technology that it cannot be subverted. But like Jack Balkin, I think that (1) the technology invites this kind of quotation and (2) the fact that a norm has been established, and has worked for those who have followed it rather well, will tend to entrench it. This is as true of good norms as it is for evil. If what it means to be a good blogger today is, among other things, to give attribution, link, and be authentic, then that is what new bloggers will do, and that is what readers will expect. And while none of this is determined, it is self-reinforcing for precisely the reasons Farrell himself describes—that is, it does reinforce precisely what makes the blogosphere attractive to its practitioners. So while I think norms can be dislodged, they are not so fragile once entrenched that we cannot begin to rely on their presence for practical institutional design.
More specifically, in a very important move Farrell emphasizes the potential corrupting effect of money. As more blogs will find ways of making money, they may move away from the practices of linking, authenticity, and attribution. I think this is an important concern; there is no question that sites motivated by keeping eyeballs internally for profit will have different motivations, which may lead to different practices, than “amateur” blogs. It is important to remember, however, that the blogosphere emerged as a cultural practice when traditional commercial media online were already present online, as were commercial “destination sites” like Yahoo. People were at that time even more culturally attuned to seek those out, as opposed to seeking out blog-like amateur media. And yet the blogosphere and its norms emerged. What people flocked to in the blogosphere was precisely the attribute that they made a very different information environment possible, an environment that emerged out of either nonmarket action or small market action.
A central claim of the book is not that markets or market actors will disappear, but that, because of the low cost of action in the networked environment, a substantial new form of production can take root and provide a steady and sustainable flow of information, knowledge, and culture, alongside and around the market-based flows. The question then becomes whether the adoption, by some bloggers and some corporations, of the same technical form and a related cultural form will crowd out the cultural form we now know as blogging. My intutition is very much toward a market-based metaphor for the answer: these are very different “products,” occupying quite different market niches. As long as people are free to choose, they are likely to choose some of each, because each sector, the mass-media-like market, the noncommercial, and the small-commercial (like TPM) will fill different needs, and allow different conversational affordances. That is why the net neutrality debate is so important. The plan to charge authors for the privilege of being read efficiently threatens to dampen the supply of noncommercial content willing and able to pay its marginal cost of carriage, but not willing or able to pay the duopoly rents sought by the incumbent telephone and cable carriers who sit on the last mile of the broadband pipes.
I am extremely sympathetic with the tenor of Farrell’s conclusion. We cannot be sanguine about the sustainability of the practices we today celebrate. There are internal pressures—like what he describes as “invasion” from actors such as paid political astroturf bloggers or spammers—that put pressure on the genuinely free environment, and require technological or norms-based changes from a more open norm. All this is true. The ways in which these are developing, and the responses to them represent a rich and important area of research. Going into the basic science of cooperation to try to get some of the answers is an important project, and my next major focus. But I would defend the claim that understanding all these pressures in terms of political morality is important, and that understanding the particular effect of formal institutional interventions through law is urgent. We are living through a sustained assault on the integrity and freedom of the networked environment, carried out through rent-seeking legislation. We need to understand the stakes and we need to be able to recognize where the battle is being fought.
Dan Hunter has two main complaints, one small and stylistic, the other large and focused on what real work “social production” is doing in the book. I shall briefly respond to the former first, and then turn to the second.
Hunter criticizes me for writing a book that masquerades as a popular book but then cuts no corners in the text, and is a hard read for readers that it is their own intelligence is to blame for the difficulty, rather than that I have tricked them into thinking that this is an easy book, when in fact it is not, and they lack the basic means necessary to comprehend it (to wit, “a solid grounding in economics, liberal theory, political science and jurisprudence (and possibly network theory and internet architecture).”) I must say that I tried to be as upfront as possible. If anyone reads Chapter 1 and still thinks this is a popular text that won’t have hard sections, I’m not sure what else to do other than to engage in purposeful obscurantism. It is my goal to offer my work to the intelligent, diligent reader, without compromising the intellectual integrity and completeness that I think the project requires. I have tried to signal this as clearly as possible in the introduction. I have enormous faith in the good will and intellectual capability of many people who are not specialists and professional academics. I wrote this book as I did on that belief.
Hunter’s main substantive criticism is that the book lacks focus: in particular, that my claim that social production is doing a lot of work here is overstated, and that this is more of a loosely connected set of observations about the character of the internet, connected to policy questions that need to be addressed. As this goes straight to the heart of my descriptive claim, it deserves something of an answer. First, it is important to recognize that social production covers more than peer production. I spend some time in Chapter 2 explaining that peer production, large scale collaboration without price signals or hierarchical control, is only a subset of social production. The nub of the claim is that with the decentralization of capital investment in the core inputs into information knowledge, and culture—that is, computation, communications, and storage—behaviors that were once central to human well being but peripheral to economic production have moved to the core of the most advanced economies. Where once we could not decide to make an automobile for mass consumption on our spare weekends, either alone or in collaboration with friends, we can collaborate now on the production of information, knowledge and culture. This does not replace markets, but it does offer a new source of a steady flow of information and knowledge into society, and these in turn are what shape autonomy, democracy, and justice.
Hunter illustrates his concern by criticising the discussion in Chapter 9 of whether some form of social production can alleviate problems of biological and agronomic research into agriculture for food security in the developing world. He questions whether all I am doing is to take 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,” and simply renaming it “peer production.” But what I actually do there is take this “pedestrian” problem (which causes death and underdevelopment in millions of children and adults around the globe), and suggest how the networked information economy could offer some avenues for alleviation that do not depend on the political will to provide public subsidy. In particular, (1) NGO provisioning can now be more effective because of the ways in which the cost barriers to information production have been lowered and more importantly (2) that there may be new ways of organizing production, on the model of the BIOS initiative that I describe in Chapter 9, that have the potential to provide significant improvement by harnessing peer production to deliver the desired goods without appropriation. The critical point to see is that my focus is precisely a form of “social production”—that is, production done outside of either the market or the state—and that it characterizes a new solution space to “the limits of private markets.” The solutions I explore emerges out of social behavior that is not “public subsidy.” The problem is indeed a well known one. The traditional response was indeed public subsidy, and it has fallen short for decades. What I explore is the possibility of supplementing this inadequate response with a newly possible approach.
A core claim I make about social production throughout the book is that if, when capital costs were high, we had only two modes of production, and solving production problems required either market-based solutions or state-subsidy or regulation-based solutions, the rise of social production opens a new solution space to these problems. This new solution space has different advantages and constraints relative to both the market and the state. It is in the diversity of sources of solution that new forms of solutions to the problems of justice and freedom emerge.
John Quiggin is interested in the dynamics of social production, in the motivations, and in the relations to the market and the state. Needless to say, these are central to my concerns. As Quiggin discusses, the broad understanding of social production has moved from disbelief to some fairly crude cuts into why and how it works—like Raymond’s very influential, but also very early, work. Much of my own work, and that of so many others in this area, focused primarily on free and open source software, has largely been affected by the environment of disbelief. We operate on such a strong background assumption that markets and states are the only two modalities of production that simply establishing the plausibility of nonmarket, nonproprietary production in social relations was a major task of research. The next step, I think, is to begin from the baseline understanding that social production is real, and here to stay, and to begin to characterize its dynamics in greater detail and with greater rigor. One form of work would entail close analysis of particular online efforts, such as Joseph Reagle’s work on Wikipedia. There also seems to be very promising opportunities for applying the work of experimental economists, like Ernst Fehr and his collaborators at Zurich, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis at the Santa Fe Institute, and anthropologists like Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, game theorists like Matthew Rabin, and one step removed, evolutionary biologists like Eliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson. A third and related approach would involve application and synthesis of the large literature on trust and social norms. Along these dimensions we can continue in earnest to characterize practical design considerations—for both technical and institutional design.
These lines of work document and probe carefully the diversity and range of human motivations, and how they manifest in different contexts. They suggest that human populations are characterized by a fairly stable mixture of people with different motivational profiles. Some in fact seem to behave like homo economicus. Most, however, do not. Few, are true unconditional altruists. Many are reciprocators—returning good for good and ill for ill. The dynamic combination of such types causes cooperation and public goods provisioning to operate very differently than they are predicted to under the traditional, selfish rational actor model’s predictions.
One of the things we begin to learn from this literature is that people do not in even think of their normal market interactions as a series of opportunities to make a quick buck by screwing a stranger, but instead as relations of trust and forms of cooperation. “Leaving money on the table” seems to play an important role in producing efficiencies even within the market context. Understanding these dynamics is going to be central to developing better interfaces between markets and social production systems. Understanding the ways in which stable cooperative communities police themselves, and build on the different advantages of selfish actors and cooperative players will provide insight into the importance of identity, as opposed to anonymity, of transparency, and of the structures and relative costs of participation.
Eszter Hargittai takes this opportunity to emphasize the importance of considering the distribution of access, skills, and use as a central concern that should significantly moderate our enthusiasm about the networked environment. Hargittai criticizes the way in which I excuse myself from spending large chunks of the book on distribution, or the “universal access” concern that was so prominent in the 1990s, and still is in many conversations. First, she claims that ongoing studies suggest that there is a levelling off of the relative growth in underserved populations, so that my optimism that we will gradually see attenuation of the difference we are seeing in access across race or educational attainment lines is unwaranted. This may be true, and it is important. Nonethless, the particular point she makes: that growth is not as strong as it used to be, and therefore that my hope that growth, and in particular the differentially higher growth among relatively underserved populations (which, she points out, is not suprising given their lowre baseline), is somewhat at odds with the particular study she links to. There, Nielsen ratings show a decline in active home use in some countries. But this evidence raises two objections: first, the strongest growth is in Brazil, stronger than in any of the more advanced countries. This supports, rather than undermines, my point that those sectors (surveyed in that study) who were underserved before are increasing service at a higher rate. Second, home use is important, as Hargittai explains, because of privacy and convenience. Yet, as her work shows so well, skills differences are an important component of lack of access. For those who lack skills, access to a reasonably well-staffed telecenter or library may well be more valuable and more enabling than access in the privacy, comfort, and relative ignorance of the home. Certainly in developing nations, public telecenters as well as small-business telecenter kiosks and cybercafes are central pillars of access diffusion policy. Finally, she raises the concern that the young users, the teenagers, those for whom skills gaps may be closing, seem to be showing an utter lack of interest in politics. Here, since the study is not yet published, I would wish to wait before I comment. The basic question that would determine the valence of these data is whether or not the survey allows one to generate a baseline rate of interest in politics of this population when offline. If 5% of them read the New York Times op-ed page in print, but only 1% go to Kos or Instapundit, then there is cause for concern. If the finding is simply that teenagers are uninterested in politics at that age, then it may simply be that they are honing the skills they will later use for adult pursuits by playing with teenager pursuits today. If that proves to be the case, it does not seem to be cause for concern.
At a broader level, of course, I share Hargittai’s concern for justice, as well as for freedom. I think her work in measuring and describing the state of distribution of access is important, and we should continue paying attention to it. My own focus in this book, in Chapter 9 on Justice and Development, has not been on digital divide issues, but rather on what I considered to be both more important and less explored: how the networked information economy, through connectivity available to about one billion people around the planet, can improve the lives and quality of development of both the connected and the five billion who are not connected. I tried to show how the emergence of social production and the networked information economy could alter, not radically, perhaps, but still to a potentially significant degree, the organization of information, knowledge, and information embedded tools and goods. My claim was that one major problem created by the integration of intellectual property into the international trade system has created significant barriers to technology transfer, to access by developing nations to opportunities for production in the global information economy, and to competitive prices for the outputs of innovation: like textbooks, drugs, or agricultural innovations. By circumventing the intellectual property industries, social production can offer alternative avenues to obtain these factors of human development. It is around these questions that the global Access to Knowledge movement is growing (for an overview of the movement at this moment, you can browse around the website of a conference we recently organized at Yale).
It is difficult for me to offer a response to Jack Balkin’s post, because he so well captures precisely what I was trying to say in so many portions of the book. Rather than restate his analysis, I would only wish to endorse it as a well reasoned and generous exploration of central themes of the book.
I will, however, use this response to take a closer look at one question where I may differ from Balkin, and certainly from others who have written on Internet culture. This is the question of the relative autonomy from, or dependence of nonproprietary social production on, market production. Balkin puts it here as the idea that the networked information economy, and in particular social production in both its individual and collaborative forms, is “layered on top of industrial forms.” Balkin elaborated this relationship in Digital Speech and Democratic Culture, where he characterized the relationship as one of “glomming on” to the ouputs of industrial information economy as material for bricolage, and “routing around” the blockages of that system. As Mimi Ito recently discussed, this also characterizes the difference between my own treatment of distributed cultural production and Henry Jenkins’, as well as her own, work on fan culture.
The basic question is one of core creativity. Do individuals and nonmarket groups need the platform or scaffolding of industrial cultural outputs to coalesce around? The basic kinds of claims in favor of the continued necessity of industrial culture as first order culture are two. First, there is the question of basic quality, ideas, themes, on which the variations can then be riffed. Second, there is the question of whether people need some authoritative cultural reference point in order to care about it as authoritative or salient, and around which they can organize their own identity and expression. In other words, must there be industrially manufactured stars as a precondition to fan culture, or can there be distributed culture that is not dependent on these icons of identity and reference?
Present cultural production always exists in conversation with yesterday’s culture, and in looser conversation with last year’s, decade’s, and century’s culture. In the twentieth century, widely shared culture was mass culture, and mass culture was dominated by proprietary and commercial culture. The definitions of what counts as quality; what are appropriate and exciting themes; what is the cultural locus of identity, were mostly generated by the industrial system, and therefore the orientation of fans, or nonmarket users and cultural bricoleurs, was toward the outputs of the industrial system. My prediction is that as the proportion of culture that is generated in the network and through social production increases in quantity, quality, and salience, social production will in turn be able to increasely rely on its own resources for generating new subjects, themes, judgments of worth, and identity attachments and enactments. In software, we already see self-sustaining creativity; in the blogosphere too we begin to see blogs becoming their own sources of commentary and conversation, rather than “glomming on” at any point to what the industrial media produce. Indeed, we see early signs of the inverse. But I cannot claim to have hard evidence that this is in fact the trend. I can only point to indications, and to my own skepticism that the industrial producers have some special abilities or role in generating first order creative outputs, leaving to the distributed millions only second order, dependent creativity.
That said, I want to reemphasize that I do agree with Balkin that the best case scenario is not one of displacement of market activities, but of emergence of a salient new set of social practices alongside the market. It is the diversity of modalities of production, not the dominance of one or another, that offers greater freedom and greater efficiencies. We are at no risk of entirely losing the market-based and industrial models of information production. In the practical battles caused by the social contradiction Balkin characterizes, the risk is one sided. The political power of the incumbents is such, that if either system is to end up the sole system, it is only the industrial system that could do so by undermining the basic economic structure of social production. My optimism, if such it is, is based on the fact that a combination of technology, social practice, emerging political consciousness, and the business world’s adjustments to the networked information environment present a formidable obstacle to those industrial players seeking to mold the network in their own image. But a successful long term stabilization of networked information economy is not the end of industrial, proprietary cultural production, but its relative contraction.
Siva Vaidhyanathan starts off with warm and glowing words, and for these I thank him. His complaint, though, is that I wrote a book about what interests me, not about what interests him. That is, that I wrote a book about how the dynamics of how technology, society, economy, and law intersect to fundamentally alter how information, knowledge, and culture are produced, rather than a book about the dynamics of how the technology component itself got to be as it is, and how it may or may not change given present pressures.
I plead only partly guilty, and that part excused by the fact that not every book can be about everything. Perhaps Vaidhyanathan is correct that a book that offers as broad a canvass as this on the networked information environment needs a chapter on the technology itself: where it originates and what are the dynamics and pressures, historically and today, that led to its past and that affect its future. Instead, I did offer, as he mentions, a brief outline of an account early in the book. I also offer the case of peer-to-peer applications and their battle with law and economic actors as a case study in the relations of law, the economic pressure, and technology, (pp. 418-425), and the brief discussion of social software (372-375) and of the emergence of platforms for human connection (369-372) as instances where one can trace the kinds of relationship and flux associated with the development of technology.
Clearly, these references were sufficient to allow Vaidhyanathan to map me, correctly, as sitting somewhere between Elizabeth Eisenstein’s whiggish, but eminently well-defended, history of print, and Adrian Johns’s highly detailed attack on that conception of print, as well as somewhere between her and Paul Starr in my sense of the relative autonomy of the social subsystem of technological development from politics. If that is soft determinism, so be it.
What matters is, of course, how soft is “soft.” Jack Balkin better captured the mixture of optimism about what the technology can enable and concern for how it could be undermined that characterizes the book. The entire third part of Wealth of Networks is dedicated to mapping the set of contemporary battles over the shape of the future of this cluster of technologies and their uses, and it is argued from the perspective that the institutional and political choices will affect the shape of the technology and how it will structure social relations. When I say that the primary negative effect of software patents is that they would undermine the structure of free and open source software development given the social-economic dynamics of that system of software development (438-439), I am not entirely sure what it means to say that I am inattentive to who is developing the technology and how the battles I describe affect them. When I say that the p2p wars are ambiguous in their outcome, and that the technology has developed, as have its uses, in constant interplay with the lawsuits and the rules, and that the current architecture of p2p networks and patterns of their use are a result of the constant effort, both legal and illegal, institutional and technical, to disrupt these systems, again, I am not sure how this is determinism, soft or otherwise.
My basic goal in this book is to characterize the technological-social-economic state in which we find ourselves, and the stakes of current battles. I take the technology as it is much of the time when I try to diagnose what is important, and what is not. I focus on those attributes of what we observe that are basic and structural: the decentralized capital structure, the connectivity, the flexibility. The interfaces with society, economy, and law are described when and as I deem them important for that diagnosis and prediction. It is that ability of my approach to diagnose and predict that is the subject of Vaidhyanathan’s somewhat out-of-character ad hominem conclusion. Vaidhyanathan says: “Five years ago, Benkler predicted at a copyright conference that the major commercial music industry would be no more within five years. It would be destroyed by the powerful pull of file-sharing technology, he declared. His technological optimism remains. So does the music industry.”
I couldn’t remember having said such a thing, so I went back to the archives of that conference. It was called “A Free Information Ecology in the Digital Environment.” You can browse the archive here. The “prediction” he refers to was actually Eben Moglen’s opening joke to his characteristically insightful presentation, in which Moglen analyzed why effective DRM would have to eliminate free software from the playing devices, why these efforts would fail, and how the free software movement needed to gear up to meet this long and difficult challenge. It was, as is so often the case with Moglen, not only prescient but also in-your-face. It hardly counts as evidence of unwarranted optimism and a lack of attentiveness to the contingencies and the necessity of battles to establish and maintaining a free information environment against the pressures of proprietary producers and the politicians they buy. Indeed, the DMCA is here; DRM are here, but the leak-proof pipe that the industry has sought for so long is as far away as it was six years ago. What I say in the book about the music industry, in any event, is that it, among all the other copyright industries, is in the position where it offers the least value, has the fewest avenues of alternative revenue streams, and therefore is most vulnerable among these industries and most likely in fact to die, without much loss to culture or the economy. I consider its future as more tentative by comparison to what appears to be the much more stable, but still stressful, condition of Hollywood. (pp. 425-28).
I want to conclude by again emphasizing how grateful I am for all the work and attention that the contributors have put into their comments. As a totality, they focus on some of the core methodological questions that the book raises or has to work on: the internal dynamics of social production: motivations, the role of norms, and their natural history; the relations of social production to market production; the role of the state; and the dynamics of technology politics, and society. I have done my best to illuminate these questions in the book, but much work remains.