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Book Review: Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks” 11/16/2009

Posted by Derek Belt in Reviews.
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Two generations ago, what you read in the newspaper or heard on the radio was what you knew about the world outside of your own home town. But that wasn’t the entire story. The media tycoons that owned the printing presses and controlled the airwaves had final say on the information that reached the public. There was little to no opportunity to ask questions or dive down for more information. It was essentially a one-way conversation.

One generation ago, what you saw on the television was what you knew about the world outside of your own home town. Pictures spoke louder than words, but ultimately you remained at the whim of the corporations that controlled the television stations. And just as before, that wasn’t the entire story. A one-way conversation it remained.

Today, things are different. Yochai Benkler, in his book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, introduces a new era of communication that empowers the individual and threatens the monopoly status of traditional media powers. Benkler dubs this new age the “networked information economy” (NIE) and outlines how its low-cost configuration clashes with that of the incumbent industrial information economy, which relies on high distribution costs to make up for the high fixed costs of production.

How we access information—and what we can do with the information we have—has changed dramatically in the past decade. Never before has our society been so connected. Never before has information been so transparent. Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argues in favor of these changes, claiming the new media strategy benefits our society from a social standpoint, not an economic one. He feels the true value of social production will lead to “a more critical culture, a more discursively engaged and better informed republic, and perhaps a more equitable global community.” (Benkler, 92)

Though there are many forms of social production, much of Benkler’s book focuses on the internet. He references Wikipedia and Linux, among others, as examples of a changing media landscape that relies less on industry and more on individuals. There is no money to be made from advancing these so-called networks, but there is social value in contributing to the greater good and the collective well being of our society. Such investments in knowledge, Benkler says, are elemental to the networked information economy.

It’s not all rosy in the world of digital communication, though, as Benkler ably points out in part three of his book. A cultural war is being waged between the old and the new, he says, as the production of pricey physical goods (planes, trains, automobiles) gives way to inexpensive information goods and services (movies, music, software). Whereas the industrial information economy leverages its monopoly position in the market to overcome high fixed costs, the NIE allows individuals greater autonomy on all fronts. Take moviemaking, for example. The average Joe could never have competed with big companies before because they just couldn’t cover the cost of production. Now, anyone with a MacBook Pro and some imagination can produce an independent film and broadcast it over the internet for next to nothing.

Benkler says the industrial information economy is fighting back through legislative efforts to uphold and even extend copyright law while dutifully strengthening intellectual property rights. He opines: “No piece of legislation more clearly represents the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment than the pompously named Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.” (Benkler, 415) Hardly a pragmatic approach to the cultural war he describes at length, Benkler’s argument is both accurate and one-sided at the same time. His unwavering belief in the greater good offers hope for the future but fails to adequately address the present, leaving readers to wonder what he would have said about the prospects of another decade in which the industrial information economy, backed by powerful lobbyists and defiant legislative activity, holds all of the cards. Would our future look so cheery then?

Overall, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom is a compelling read that offers a promising depiction of the world in which we might soon live. Benkler says the networked information economy and the ability of people to communicate more openly and more freely will forever change our politics, our media, our freedom and our culture. “We are witnessing a fundamental change in how individuals can interact with their democracy and experience their role as citizens. … They are no longer constrained to occupy the role of mere readers, viewers, and listeners. They can be, instead, participants in a conversation.” (Benkler, 272) It’s a book of striking vision and yet another complement to students researching our changing media landscape at the University of Washington’s Masters in Digital Media Communication program.

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Comments»

1. Book Reviews – Wealth of Networks « Economics of Digital Communication - 11/17/2009

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2. suzukiuw - 11/18/2009

Nice review – I agree that Benkler is heavy on the optimistic side though. I think the potential downsides extend further than just current power brokers lobbying for changes in laws though. One thing Benkler doesn’t get into is the massive distribution disruptions and how quickly the advances of digital distribution are changing not only traditional media, but traditional economics. This disruption has social impacts (which are probably beyond the scope of his book anyway) which need to be addressed. Sometimes I feel like the kids following the Pied Piper – everything sounds great but I am just not sure it’s safe on the other side of the hill.

I think anyone who firmly believes in something has the ability to overlook the faults. It’s almost like being in puppy love. I think what I would like from someone so smart and knowledgeable about this topic is a realistic discussion of some of the perils and downsides. Once again, probably not in the purview of this book, or even the responsibility of Benkler. Sometimes though, I just wish I knew what was on the other side of the coin.

Although it seems to be the sentiment in our class, do you think sometimes this almost dogmatic belief that the improvement of society is payment enough will take hold in the greater public? I know not everyone does everything for money, but we all still have bills to pay. This is especially true in the current times with high un- and underemployment. I just wonder how altruistic people are when they have no income or resources and can’t find work because it’s all been crowd sourced.

eseongj - 11/18/2009

The following is an observation from Shane about the future of social production in the information economy. “Although it seems to be the sentiment in our class, do you think sometimes this almost dogmatic belief that the improvement of society is payment enough will take hold in the greater public? I know not everyone does everything for money, but we all still have bills to pay. This is especially true in the current times with high un- and underemployment. I just wonder how altruistic people are when they have no income or resources and can’t find work because it’s all been crowd sourced.” I found this very thought provoking and it brought up a consideration I had not previously entertained.

Perhaps like most things there will be benefits as well as costs in a system motivated for love not money. The motivation doesn’t guarantee that the ends will be as altruistic as the means. Especially if cultural political tensions between east and west and the Muslim world are exacerbated. There is a possible conflict between the idea of social benefit and identities that perceive “good” or “worthy” societies…one of the things that Benkler points out is that the benefits provided by the networked information economy have the potential to be distributed indiscriminately because of the ease of access. In a world that is often torn apart by conflicting religions, ideologies, and dogmas will societies begin to build walls for reasons other than those of economics? Perhaps the altruistic “good for society” rational that enables peer production will also motivate peer produced protectionism.

3. jrdenk21 - 11/21/2009

Great review, Derek. I like the theme of “two-way conversation”. I agree with Benkler that society will benefit from social production. The examples of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Diebold voting machines are pretty striking examples of how the modern information age allows more a more democratic society.

However, I’m still not sold (pun intended) on the economic aspect of the argument. I think the middle ground within the Free vs. Paid argument will prevail. We don’t, and won’t, have to pay for everything, but it’s not accurate to say that we’ll get everything for free either, at least, not anything that is “worth” paying for. Sure, we can create movies on our MacBooks and produce music with GarageBand, but professional art and content should still have a place in society.

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