Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reading :: The Penguin and the Leviathan

The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-InterestBy Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler's previous book, The Wealth of Networks, was an academic book about how peer production works. This one is a popular book that explores the related question of how peer production and similar cooperative enterprises can work, since they seem to contradict the seemingly natural impulse of self-interest. As Benkler points out, this assumption of rational self-interest underpins so many things that we take for granted: in economics, rational choice theory; in law, harsh punishments; in business, top-down hierarchies; in government, the Leviathan. Yet, Benkler argues, cooperation is deeply ingrained in us and can serve to revolutionize all of these areas.

Benkler's examples are familiar to anyone who has read others' books in this vein, such as The Starfish and the Spider and What's Mine is Yours. (I confess that I thought: again with Linux, Zipcar, and Toyota? Surely there are other examples.) But Benkler covers new ground by delving into the nature/culture debate, describing evolutionary as well as cultural roots of cooperation; psychological and social influences; empathy; fairness; and morals. That is, Benkler follows themes of cooperation through several disciplines.

The result is a fine popular contribution. But in covering so many disciplines, Benkler spreads his argument too thin. For instance, he touches on the nature-nurture debate that stretched through the entire 20th century, but doesn't engage in it deeply except to summarily conclude that both are influences. Similarly, his discussion of psychological and social influences hinge on the notion of Goffman's work with frame, but he doesn't do much with that notion besides demonstrating that when people see the same task within competing frames, they perceive it differently. In these, and in the other chapters, Benkler takes relatively narrow conversations happening within a given discipline and characterizes these conversations as what those disciplines have discovered about cooperation. Obviously he has to gloss if he's going to apply all of these disciplines to one topic in one book - but that's a very thin gloss. I would have preferred much more hedging and, well, framing.

However, Benkler does manage to counteract so many of the obvious yet flawed objections to peer production, objections predicated on a view of humanity as simply selfish or self-interested. If you deal with people who roll their eyes at the notion of open source software or who caution you not to look at Wikipedia because "anyone could write anything there," this might be the right book to give them.

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