The Wealth of Networks. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 515.
Everything has a cost and therefore a price. The barter system evolved to the monetary system and has continued into the 21st century. In spite of a few spheres where production and distribution are voluntary or charitable, the dominant and underlying principle of a market driven economy has been money. That is, till the Internet took seed a couple of decades ago, giving birth to the idea that information needn’t fit this capitalist ideal.
Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks is partly a study of the economics of the Internet as it has emerged as a network of information and partly a study of the way it has been shaped by economic history and is shaping the current economic, social and political structure. More importantly, The Wealth of Networks makes a case for why information needn’t and shouldn’t be proprietary.
Benkler makes four economic observations in his book. The first is that property and markets have been the root of all growth and productivity. Second, this has resulted in nonproprietary models of operation suffering a loss – access to information resources have been rendered more expensive for all. However, with the advent of the Internet, the basic technologies of information processing, storage and communication have made nonproprietary models more attractive and effective than before. Lastly, Benkler observes the rise of collective intelligence or peer production as a stark contrast to the conventional thinking of information production.
Overall Benkler’s take on the evolution of the Internet is a liberal and positive one – he believes the breaking down of the conventional capitalist ideals is for the greater common good.
The emergence of a substantial role for nonproprietary production offers discrete strategies to improve human development around the globe.” (p. 464)
For us, as individuals, the Internet provides the freedom to do more for and by ourselves, according to Benkler. While he acknowledges academicians who support the theory that the Internet fragments our society, Benkler clearly believes there is a wealth of social gain in online networking. People are communicating more rather than less now. Yes, there is the problem of information overload, but people are finding effective ways to navigate that don’t follow the mass-media model.
From the perspective of a participatory republic, the networked information economy offers a genuine reorganization of the public sphere, according to The Wealth of Networks.
The emergence of a networked public sphere is attenuating, or even solving, the most basic failings of the mass-mediated public sphere. It attenuates the power of the commercial mass-media owners and those who can pay them. It provides an avenue for substantially more diverse and politically mobilized communication than was feasible in a commercial mass media with a small number of speakers and a vast number of passive participants.” (p. 465)
Benkler also discusses the tenuous positions of culture and society within this new, digital era. He believes the Internet renders culture more transparent. Unlike television that created passive audiences, Benkler believes the Internet forces us as consumers to be more active, more individual and produces a better community of “readers” of culture. In being more participatory, we are changing and shaping the new digital culture as well. Twentieth century remote media – the telephone and the television – are now being replaced by the Internet. A new social paradigm is being born where geography and physical contact are no longer barriers to communicate. Peer production provides a rather thick social connection with remote others.
The Wealth of Networks doesn’t raise new issues or present new ideas. Instead, Benkler grounds his perspective in historic fact and observation. It was but natural for the Internet to be modeled on the same economic principles as a car or a watch – information after all, is a commodity – and has been treated as such all along. The fact that information is now being handled as proprietary can be blamed on the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. It is hard to disagree with Benkler when he states that the next ten years will determine the shape of many things, one amongst which is our social culture.
As a Professor at Yale Law School, Benkler addresses anyone interested in the subject of the Internet, culture and society in The Wealth of Networks. His writing style, however, clearly targets a more academic audience. The ideas presented in this book aren’t rounded – Benkler clearly supports a liberal viewpoint and says so right in the introductory chapter. Yet, he invites skeptics as well as believers to read – his position is well grounded and draws widely from literatures of philosophy, economics, and political theory. Few will find reason to question the reasons for his beliefs.
The only shortcoming is The Wealth of Networks pays little attention to the way in which the networked information economy will evolve. Benkler does not address its vulnerabilities – will it succumb to technical capture (better technological changes wiping out the old) in the same way the industrial information economy is vulnerable to capital capture (companies being bought out)? Benkler has a wait-and-see approach to regulatory intervention. Still, The Wealth of Networks is a comprehensive, logistic and grounded analysis of the arguments for a commons-based approach to the development of the information network.
Questions for discussion –
- How does one deal with the issue of copyright when its very purpose is to block open forms of collaboration?
- Is there any validity to the Net Neutrality debate?
- The idea of a global network brings with it two important issues – one, in developing economies the digital divide raises its ugly head again and two, pricing is no longer as simple as demand and supply in one particular market. How does one address these two issues?