[iDC] Yochai Benkler "The Wealth of Networks"

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Apr 15 10:00:16 EDT 2006

Yesterday night at Eyebeam Yochai Benkler  launched his new book 'The
Wealth of Networks : How Social Production Transforms Markets and
Freedom.' Benkler, who is is also the author of Coase's Penguin was
introduced by Jonah Peretti. Jonah asked what happens when people with
computers and network access have too much time on their hand. He
examplified this by talking about collaborative news voting sites like
Digg, non-competitive games like Second Life, distributed computing
projects like NASA's Clickworkers and folksonomy-driven photo-sharing
sites like Flickr. 


What follows are a few partial and by all means incomplete notes of
Yochai Benkler's lively, high-speed presentation. To get a precise,
in-depth idea of Benkler's ideas, read the book. 

His two little sons sat in the first row, armed with books under their
arms. Yochai Benkler started off by questioning exaggerated notions of
liberation attached to an operating system like Linux. He set the stage
for his talk by asserting that there are between 600 million and one
billion people connected to the Internet. This connectivity and access
is the precondition for cooperation that becomes the very core of the
economy. Commons-based peer production, a term for which Benkler is
frequently cited, takes place without managerial command. It is not
utopian but very real. It offers a solution space: 'Stuff flows out of
connected beings.'

One of the stellar examples of successful Open Source Software projects
is Apache, which captures 70 percent of the market share. In this
instance it is rather clear that "the jam and butter is on our side of
the bread and not on Microsoft's or IBM's." To further his argument of
production power of online peer production Yochai referred to the DMOZ
Open Directory Project with its many many thousand voluntary editors who
outdid Yahoo's competing efforts. The author argued that commons-based
peer production is a real fact, not a fad.


He described non-market economies of social sharing and exchange and
pointed to a move away from what he called "well-behaved tools" like TVs
or DVD players to general purpose devices. Such devices, for him, are
the opposite of trusted systems (trusted against their owners).

Benkler made clear that this commons-based peer production is a threat
to existing business models, which in turn also threaten it. In
political terms Yochai, who is professor at Yale Law School, used the
term autonomy to describe the move to greater individual freedom. As
example he used Gutenberg Project. In terms of democracy he referred to
the experience of a purely mass mediated public sphere. He introduced
the term of see-for-yourself ethics into this context. Examples included
a step-by-step account of the debate about voting machines in the last
election that delineated an ecology of voices that is diverse and can't
be easily stopped by shutting down the computers of people who
distribute unpleasant information such as details about flaws of the
mentioned voting machines. 


The Internet allows for a critical cultural life, he claimed.

The Internet democratizes despite the 'Babel objection' (nobody hears
nobody else). There is an experience of fragmentation and polarization.
Topical clusters of sites emerge. A Democrat may link to a Republican
site but is unlikely to link to a soccer site, for example. One website
focusing on a certain topic links to a site of similar topical
orientation thus delivering many entry points into one field.

As examples of the malleability of remix culture Benkler showed USDAT's
BushBlair video and The Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse (download
bittorrent file). Benkler went on to argue that Wikipedia, with all its
many faults, introduces tyransparency into culture. With regard to
justice he suggested that increasingly more of what relates to human
development depends on information. He referred to open academic
publishing (learning materials), and the Free Software project Savanah
and the scientific research initiative Hapmap. Benkler also mentioned
open wireless networks and municipal broadband into this setting.


In conclusion, Yochai Benkler argued that there is greater human agency
allowed in these systems of commons-based peer production. Commons-based
peer production according to Benkler, is not a  victory of the left. It
is rather an eqilibrium between market actors and non-market actors. He
ended with the remark that leaving economic systems to the capitalist
market alone is unforgivable. The brief question and answer session
after the talk brought up a fleeting reference to Henry Hansmann's work.

Benkler's talk offered useful argumentation of the case for
commons-based peer production. The term itself is perhaps a bit too
broad. It alludes to the dream of every venture capitalist-- that of
drawing the online millions with the enticing songs of sirens into their
online spaces and get them to work. The users/producers are turned into
work horses. His argument that deliberately used "liberal language"
(i.e. references to autonomy) may be of particular importance in a
business context where CEOs need to understand that these peer-to-peer
forces will not go away and that they can't kill them either. They have
to ask themselves if peer production in the commons can be more
efficient than the work of hired employees. Which entrepreneur would not
enjoy to line up 5000 unpaid volunteers online? To argue that such peer
production is motivated by people¹s boredom is a very limited
suggestion. It is not the fact that people have too much time on their
hand that motivates them to produce online. Benkler called commons-based
peer production a new solution space for collaboration, the human
ecology of contribution. While such suggestion of collaboration, which
is really a forced cooperation, sounds scary, it may be wrong to
completely condemn such models of working together as a future society
may be full of hybrid work spaces, hybrid identities and hybrid economic

Corporations have to acknowledge peer production and try to make money
in the cracks of this novel economy, he argued. Benkler proposed that we
need to find ways to convince the corporate lions that it is worthwhile
to pay people who produce Open Source Software, for example. Yochai
Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks" renders the economic realities of the
Internet for those who missed the day-to-day culture of sharing and
exchange online.


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