Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Reading :: The Wealth of Networks

Originally posted: Tue, 09 May 2006 19:24:54

The Wealth of Networks : How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

by Yochai Benkler

I ran across this book via a BoingBoing post that pointed to Benkler's wiki on the book and a link to the book's PDF. In fact, the PDF is what I read. I was somewhat hesitant to do so, given BoingBoing's tendency to recommend texts primarily on whether those texts agree with the bloggers' conclusions, but I was interested in the subject and assumed that Yale wouldn't be publishing anything half-baked, so I gave it a try. (I'm not sure what it means that I'm reviewing it here rather than on Benkler's wiki, as he intended.)

Benkler is a professor of law at Yale. He appears to be a fast tracker, having received his JD from Harvard in 1994 and clerked for Stephen Breyer the following year, then spending three years as assistant professor and two as associate professor at NYU. In this book, he's primarily concerned with how the widespread availability of information technology is introducing, and will continue to introduce, new modes of production. "In the networked information economy," he says, "the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed through society" (p.6). The cost for distributing information drops to near zero, and the cost for producing it drops rapidly as well. Consequently, we see more distributed production strategies and production aimed at enacting public and liberal (small L) commitments rather than at recouping investment. He believes that this development toward "an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium" (p.22) will

lead to a substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century industrial producers of information, culture, and communications -- like Hollywood, the recording industry, and perhaps the broadcasters and some of the telecommunications service giants -- to a combination of widely diffuse populations around the globe, and the market actors that will build the tools that make this population better able to produce its own information environment rather than buying it ready-made. (p.23)

This argument should sound familiar, since variations of it have become popular with BoingBoing and other outposts of the open source/free software movement, remix culture, and affiliated lines of thought. Benkler's version of the argument is not parsimonious, but it is far better supported and qualified than the usual versions. Drawing on authors such as Castells and Beniger, Benkler makes familiar points in more careful ways.

Let's take the assertion that markets are conversations. This point was made ad nauseam in The Cluetrain Manifesto and is alluded to in a number of other works (Carter; Beniger; Castells; Malone; Reynolds). Here, Benkler makes the argument with some empirical backing (p.56), pointing to the role of aggregation (p.69) and emphasizing the vital role that trust plays in sustaining these market conversations (pp.105-106). He adds that the distributed costs of infrastructure allow sharing to come back from the periphery, and argues that social sharing -- such as in open source communities -- is unlike markets or hierarchies (p.121). The lower cost of information production results in a radical increase in producers and less focus on marketability or filtering (p.166).

When anyone can talk to anyone, we worry that such conversations will turn into Babel: information overload. Benkler addresses this "Babel objection" by describing mechanisms that people are currently using to collaboratively filter information (p.169). What interests Benkler here is that such mechanisms provide a competing model for constructing the public sphere, a far more participatory model than that afforded by broadcast media (p.215), with a more participatory model of accreditation, linking (p.219). Benkler offers a number of case studies, such as the Stolen Honor incident in the 2004 election and a case study of the Diebold voting machine scandal (ch.7). In fact, Chapter 7 appears to be the Left counterpoint to the cases described by Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds (and shares at least one of these cases, the Trent Lott scandal). What Benkler brings to the cases is some principled analysis: he tells the same sorts of stories that Hewitt and Reynolds tell, but ties in a discussion of power law, network topology, stock price, and similar topics to offer a more methodologically oriented explanation.

Toward the end of the book, Benkler offers some more claims that are familiar to members of open source and free software movements. For instance, he claims that the networked information society improves justice (p.305) and that a networked information economy will lead to improvements in the public sphere (p.465). More interesting to me are some brief claims he makes about the nature of the individual:

What is emerging in the work of sociologists is a framework that sees the networked society or the networked individual as entailing an abundance of social connections and more effectively deployed attention. The concern with the decline of community conceives of a scarcity of forms of stable, nurturing, embedding relations, which are mostly fixed over the life of an individual and depend on long-standing and interdependent relations in stable groups, often with hierarchical relations. What we now see emerging is a diversity of forms of attachment and an abundance of connections that enable individuals to attain discrete components of the package of desiderata that ?community? has come to stand for in sociology.

As Wellman puts it: ?Communities and societies have been changing towards networked societies where boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies are flatter and more recursive....Their work and community networks are diffuse, sparsely knit, with vague, overlapping, social and spatial boundaries.? In this context, the range and diversity of network connections beyond the traditional family, friends, stable coworkers, or village becomes a source of dynamic stability, rather than tension and disconnect. (p.366)

He offers the example of mobile phone users in Japan: teenagers can fill a traditional role in their homes, while using SMS to construct new roles with their friends.

They continue to spend time in their home, with their family. They continue to show respect and play the role of child at home and at school. However, they interpolate that role and those relations with a sub-rosa network of connections that fulfill otherwise suppressed emotional needs and ties. (p.367)

Whenever I began feeling that Benkler wasn't going anywhere, that he was simply deepening the very familiar arguments made by the open source community and related communities, I would run across an observation such as this one. And that's why I have such mixed feelings about this book. About 80% of it is a rehashing of the sorts of things I read on BoingBoing, Buzzmachine, Instapundit, or Slashdot, deepened with a bit of analysis and copious references to Castells. But about 20% (let's be generous) is really interesting news. I think the 20% is probably worth it.

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