The Dialectic of Technology

by Siva Vaidhyanathan on May 30, 2006

Yochai Benkler has given us a comprehensive, complex, and persuasive work in The Wealth of Networks. There is no better place to turn for an account of the processes of creativity and commerce relating to digital networks and the work that people do with them.

Benkler is the most original thinker on matters digital writing today. If there are observations in this book that seem familiar, it is only because others (including most clumsily, myself) have poached Benkler’s shorter works and enthusiastically rephrased his ideas for common consumption. But this book is certain to last and displace all pretenders (including, sadly, my own work). It should be the first place scholars and students turn to understand the radical changes we have encountered in the culture and economics of information in recent years.

But what of chickens and eggs? Have we generated and proliferated these powerful technologies because we desired them to “extend” (as McLuhan might say) our corporeal and social capabilities? Or have these technologies pushed us to new states of consciousness and new relationships that we could not even imagine before Netscape’s IPO?

These are questions I have been pondering for years. I don’t have clear answers myself. Perhaps I am digging myself a philosophical hole in my attempt to grasp the dynamic relationships among developers, users, regulators, and vendors in the distributed and delicate digital environment. So please forgive me if I seem to have hunted hungrily through Benkler’s book seeking wisdom and guidance in my search for answers. He has granted me much clarity to me before. So I might be guilty of holding him and his book to unfair standards.

This one issue remains underwritten in the text: the story of the technology itself. Throughout the text, there seems to be an almost givenness about the technology. TCP/IP is just there. Even Cisco’s notorious discriminating servers, the source of so much tension over the end of network neutrality, just appear (p. 146-161) . We get no sense that particular technologies are malleable, adaptable, contingent, and socially shaped. We get no account of developer’s wishes or users’ adaptions. We only get cursory accounts of the conflicts over the future of these technologies that have unleashed (to choose a loaded term) so much creativity.

Benkler does, however, offer a general manifesto on his softly deterministic view of the relationship between technology and human affairs. I find this account (pp. 16-18) generally inadequate.

Benkler opens the section by declaring technological determinists like Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan out of fashion in the academy. While he is correct, and he invokes the more solid account of technological influence that we get from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change as a model, he declares Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media as the model of a “political-choice-based” explanation of technological change. But he does not take us there.

While Eisenstein’s book is foundational, we have moved beyond it. We have supplemented (if not displaced) her account of the changes wrought by the printing press in Europe. Subsequent works such as Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book and Roger Chartier’s The Order of Books have heralded a soclological account of the relationship among writers, readers, printers, and vendors. Such relationships, in the work of these two historians, are dynamic and contingent. So are the technologies they consider.

The work of technology in The Wealth of Networks, I am afraid, echoes Eisenstein and McLuhan more than it does Johns or Starr. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But the next account of the digital revolution (and I agree with Benkler about the revolutionary implications of these technologies and our uses of them) must engage with a more philosophical and historical account of the specific technologies.

Consider the central claim that Eisenstein raises in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: The very fixity of the printed word altered hierarchies, values, and habits of Europeans. It changed minds. Thus popes and kings fell. This is fine, as far as it goes.

But then consider that the central technological claim that Benkler invokes in The Wealth of Networks: the digital revolution has ignited a powerful global culture of flexibility. Texts, codes, machines, and expressions are all in flux in this book. So are the minds of those who engage with them. That’s the source of so much wealth and creativity. Again, it’s a powerful case.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? What of efforts to retard the flux? What of challenging technologies like digital rights management (DRM) and trusted computing?. These issues get play (and dismissal) in The Wealth of Networks (pp. 409-410), but we don’t get a sense of the dialectic relationship among the groups of people pushing controlling technologies (efforts to re-install fixation as the dominant model of distribution) and those working to break the bonds (and thus enable flux). Benkler seems to be confident that flux has won and fixity must fall. I am not so sure.

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.

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