Introduction: The Wealth of Networks seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 30, 2006

Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom”: is a very exciting book. It captures an important set of developments – how new information technologies make it easier for individuals to collaborate in producing cultural content, knowledge, and other information goods. It draws links across apparently disparate subject areas to present a theory of how these technologies are reshaping opportunities for social action. Finally, it presents a highly attractive vision of what society might be like if we allow these technologies to flourish, as well as the political obstacles which may prevent these technologies from reaching their full potential. If you’re interested in debates on Creative Commons, on Wikipedia, on net neutrality, or any of a whole host of other issues, this is an essential starting point.

We’ve put together a seminar on the book, which we hope will help spur discussion around it in the blogosphere. This is an important debate. In a (long overdue) departure from previous seminars that I and others have organized at CT, we hope to include other blogs more directly in the discussion than in the past. We’ll do this by borrowing an idea from Will Wilkinson, and using this post to link to blogs which we think make substantial contributions to this set of arguments (nb that my definition of substantial is necessarily an idiosyncratic one). The material from this seminar is also available under a Creative Commons license (the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License) for others to re-use and add to in creative ways. The seminar is available both as a “PDF”: and as an “.rtf”: file for easier reading and re-use.

The contributions are in the order that they are mentioned in Benkler’s response. “Henry Farrell”: argues that not only formal institutions but also informal norms are necessary for these technologies to enable proper collaboration. “Dan Hunter”: celebrates the book, but worries that it covers too many topics, and that it’s written in language that non-academic readers may have difficulty in understanding. “John Quiggin”: examines the underlying motivations behind the production of common resources, and suggests that Benkler’s arguments point to major flaws in innovation policy. “Eszter Hargittai”: suggests that inequalities in the ability to participate may mean that these new technologies won’t do as much to flatten social hierarchies as they might seem to. “Jack Balkin”: claims that Benkler’s book isn’t so much about new modes of cooperation replacing market mechanisms, as existing side-by-side with them. “Siva Vaidhyanathan”: argues that Benkler’s book is guilty of a soft form of technological determinism, which overemphasizes the positive consequences of new technologies and implicitly discounts the less positive. Finally, “Yochai Benkler”: responds to all of the above.

As with previous seminars, please don’t comment on this introductory post, except to point out formatting glitches etc that need to be taken care of. If you have general responses, you should leave them in the comments section of Benkler’s post. If you have specific responses to individual posts, of course leave them in the comments sections for those posts. Finally, if you wish to link to this seminar from your own blog, please link to the introductory post (as this links in turn to all the contributions).

Norms and Networks

by Henry Farrell on May 30, 2006

_The Wealth of Networks_ is a very important book, not only for people involved in debates on information and technology policy, but for the left as a whole. While it clearly builds on work by Larry Lessig, James Boyle, Pamela Samuelson and others on intellectual property and the public space, the real contribution (as with some of these other writers) is to a broader tradition of thought; that of people like Jane Jacobs, James Scott, Richard Sennett and Iris Marion Young. Benkler’s vision of the good society is one in which people have a high degree of autonomy, so that they have the practical capabilities to pursue their own interests and their own forms of cultural expression. He argues that new communications technologies, if they’re left unhampered, might radically increase this practical autonomy. They can do this by making it far easier for individuals to become producers as well as consumers of culture, and to share their cultural products with each other, so that they can build collectively on each other’s work. On the one hand, technologies such as the Internet allow us to engage with each other in new ways, and to form networks of collaboration and of conversation, creating possibility conditions for the kinds of diversity and critical thinking that democratic theorists prize. On the other, these technologies do so in a relatively non-constraining way.

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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.

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Why do social networks work?

by John Q on May 30, 2006

Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production transforms Markets and Freedom is full of interesting things to discuss, but the point that interests me most is the question of why people contribute to social production and what economic and political implications it has, for states as well as for markets and freedom. Benkler previously discussed the same question in Sharing Nicely, and I’ll talk a bit about this as well.

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Whose networks? Whose wealth?

by Eszter Hargittai on May 30, 2006

A good book raises at least as many questions as it answers. By focusing on an issue that does not really get addressed by Yochai Benkler in the Wealth of Networks, I do not mean to suggest that the author should have written the book I would like to see written (in fact, I am working on it so it is just as well:). Rather, I would like to suggest some issues that are worth considering in the context of this discussion.

Before I present my comments, I would like to note that I very much enjoyed reading this book and think it will appeal to and be of value to a wide range of people. I like the mix of tackling large important questions while getting into the nitty-gritty of what is happening on the ground and illustrating points with very detailed and careful examples. The book serves as a helpful reference to various online discussions and events that have occurred in the past few years and it is useful to have them documented and linked together suggesting that they were more than isolated occurrences of how people are using digital technologies for political and social purposes. The other contributions of this seminar tackle the big questions addressed directly in the book. I have decided to address an aspect of the issue that is not addressed in detail yet I believe needs to be part of the conversation.

The point I want to focus on here is the unequal distribution of opportunities discussed in the book and what potential consequences this may have. That is, to what extent are the benefits of the possibilities raised by recent innovations distributed equally among different segments of the population and to the extent that they are not, what implications might that have?

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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.

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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.

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by Yochai Benkler on May 30, 2006

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.

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The Lone Rhino & The Bird That You Can’t See

by John Holbo on May 30, 2006

In response to our poll, the people have spoken. It’s pensive rhino by a 3-to-1 margin, over bird on a stereo.

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