Review – The Wealth of Networks

Yochai Benkler’s book “The Wealth of Networks” is a wide-ranging work that presents an encompassing ground of thought and evidence to support his premise: that the radically distributed and peer-produced network information economy being enabled and encouraged by Internet technologies is showing our society a positive direction of possible evolution. This evolution is from a one-to-many, relatively passive consumer, and industrial production model to a many-to-many, engaged participant, and commons-based production model.

Benkler sets his basic context for discussion by starting out with the economic aspect of this evolution. He uses several well-known examples (Wikipedia, GNU/Linux, Napster, Slashdot and SETI@Home) as well as lesser known examples (the Viking Network and NASA Clickworkers) to show how this is working today. He delves quite deeply into the economic reality today and feasibility for the future; he maintains this thread throughout the book. This is wise, as many readers may be ready to accept that the radically distributed production model works in the digital world and less likely to understand how this might be brought into being outside of the network proper.

He extends his discussion through personal autonomy, political freedom in society, and cultural freedom. His discussion of justice (as opposed to mere legality) and human development was truly an example of “casting his net wide.” His discussion expanded from more mature economies and societies to those of the Second and Third World. He takes the discussion past the one billion who are connected to the six and a half billion of all humanity. He presented arguments on the benefits of wider and freer communication and information that will act as a tide that will “raise all boats”.

According to Benkler, communication is the basic unit of social existence. Furthermore, “Information and communications are core elements of autonomy and of public political discourse and decision making.” (- pg.464). The technologies that make up the networked information economy facilitate greater communication between all connected entities. The ability to pass information between entities is central to the growth and well-being he examines and proposes, so the “Information Should Be Free” argument is central to it. What good is the ability to communicate widely if the information is costly, proprietary, or just plain unavailable? His many examples of the availability of information, widely disseminated, resulting in a greater public good, are his evidence. These include the Diebold voting machine story, the Sinclair Broadcasting boycott during the 2004 presidential election, and the use of search engines, using slightly different logarithms, for a search on “Barbie” and how they might present a slightly different set of information and experiences.

His case study of peer-to-peer networks highlights the points made earlier in the book. He also presented the concepts of institutional ecology and the three layers (physical, logical and content) of mediated human communications. Each of these provides more clarity about the areas discussed and adds some additional semantic agreement when further debate is begun. This is critical so that our assumptions are grounded in common definitions.

Benkler spends considerable time presenting the aspects of individual freedom that the more participatory environment of the network encourages. He spends even more time delving into the political, cultural and legal implications. However, I feel that this pleads for a greater good without recognizing the world’s variety of individual personalities. These are either introverted and therefore less likely to fully participate in the community as envisioned or are victims of nearly a century of passivity and thus are not likely to take part except at key junctures (e.g. – elections, legal verdicts, closing of a favorite store). While acknowledging that we are in a time of transition and instability, there is little offered regarding how we might navigate this uncertain time.

Given the political season in which we find ourselves, I appreciated his analysis of the critique that distributed discourse in the political sphere would drive extremism and not consensus. While there is always a human tendency to spend time with “folks like us”, the fact that the political spectrum cross-links sites and blogs, promoting the interleaving of ideologies and policies, current and proposed, does show and encourage greater awareness and engagement across the body politic. To my earlier point, there are and will be those who are not engaged in this dialogue, but that has always been true. Benkler makes the point that the ease and cost of joining the discussion is much more accessible to “the street”, therefore more inclusive, providing broader impact.

I believe Benkler might have made his point more concisely by providing a slightly less wordy tome. I am relatively well read and found his writing to be dense and occasionally difficult to follow. To me, the most obvious example of this is on pages 154 through 156; it begins “Imagine a world with four agents – A, B, C and D – connected to each other by a communications network.” It was difficult for me to follow his reasoning without rereading it a few times and breaking it into sections, eventually drawing it out. I realize the audience that he is writing for is more academic and professional than Anderson’s audience for The Long Tail, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be more readable. For example, I found his definition of the commons on pages 144 through 146 clear and memorable. Perhaps a better editor would have made a difference.

I am finding that as I study more deeply about the networked information economy, social production and digital media, there are a set of works that constitute a canon. The Wealth of Networks is a foundational member of this. Whether you finish the work in full agreement or disagreement (or somewhere in between), the thought encapsulated here is core to the discourse. We need this to move forward.

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