1.2 Yochai Benkler: networked information economy, commons-based peer production, democratization

Networked Information Economy

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Drawing on economic, legal, and social theory, legal scholar Yochai Benkler offers a largely positive analysis of the practices arising around networked digital technologies. In his book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, he argues that networked digital technologies have transformed the industrial information economy into what he calls the “networked information economy.”  In the industrial information economy, the means of production were scarce. Media products such as text, video, images, and music were extraordinarily expensive to create and distribute. As a result, only a small percentage of the population who had the financial or cultural capital necessary for granting them access to those means of production were able to participate in the production of these goods. The emergence of cheap, widely available, and powerful media production and distribution technologies radically changed the possibilities of production in that more individuals than ever before able to produce and distribute information-based goods such as text, video, image, music, and software. In 2006, at the time of the book’s publication, a billion people were connected to the Internet. Today, that number has risen to more than 3.6 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population (Statista).

Commons-based peer production

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Benkler describes this new modality of production as “commons-based peer production,” defining it as “radically decentralized, collaborative, and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands” (60). This form of production relies on the existence of a commons, which he defines as a particular institutional form of structuring the rights to access, use, and control resources:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 …The salient characteristic of commons, as opposed to property, is that no single person has exclusive control over the use and disposition of any particular resource in the commons. Instead, resources governed by commons may be used or disposed of by anyone among some (more or less well-defined) number of persons, under rules that may range from “anything goes” to quite crisply articulated formal rules that are effectively enforced. (61)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 He argues that networked digital communication spaces have emerged as a type of commons where individuals have the basic resources for producing and sharing information. Benkler argues that this commons has “enabled the emergence of greater scope for nonmarket production,” (24) or production that does not require monetary incentive, that in turn has led to forms of production that counter many assumptions of the old industrial information economy. These commons enable the “emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” They provide “a platform for new mechanisms for widely dispersed agents to adopt radically decentralized cooperation strategies other than by using proprietary and contractual claims to elicit prices or impose managerial commands” (63).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 To demonstrate the value of commons-based peer production, Benkler points to projects and services that have been produced largely through volunteer, collaborative efforts with self-developed mechanisms for vetting the quality and usability of volunteer contributions. For example, the GNU/Linux operating system, which allows users full control of the code running their computer, was built from scratch over a period of ten years through massive collaborative efforts. Project Gutenberg has so far digitized more than 50,000 texts and cultural materials through volunteer  efforts. Seti@Home, hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley, allows computer users to donate computing power to analyze radio signals in the search for extraterrestrial life. SlashDot, a social news site, ranks and accredits news stories through user input. Wikipedia allows users to co-write and co-edit Encyclopedia articles. And Google and Amazon use peer production strategies to facilitate their search and recommendation systems.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 To Benkler’s list of high profile examples, we might also add the observation that networks have also enabled forms of everyday collaboration across all sorts of professional and personal spheres of life.  For example, users might easily exchange or co-create information on a variety of platforms, such as on social media, wikis, blogs, listservs and so forth or discover new organization to participate in or new intellectual or cultural resources to consume. We might also look at public version control systems, such as Github, which enable developers to engage in both tight-knit and loose forms of collaborations in the production of software programs, methodically archiving each change in the program’s development for easy backtracking, and enabling other users to “fork” or copy software projects for their own development. These collaborations point to the surprising fact that valuable services and products can be produced through loose forms of organization in which producers are primarily motivated by intrinsic reward (such as pleasure or social connection) rather than a paycheck or speculative economic value.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Benkler argues that in providing individuals with tools to easily access, share, and produce information, the networked information economy:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 (1) improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organizations; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. (8)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 While none of these activities were impossible in the industrial information economy, the fact that they are exponentially easier to do allows more individuals to flexibly engage with them according to their own interests, ability, and schedules. Barriers pertaining to time, location, and permission have been considerably reduced for activities such as research, political involvement, publishing, and even socializing. Now it is possible to participate in all of these activities with only a network connection while the networked social dimension of many of these activities further strengthens the non-monetary motivations to engage with them (140).

Democratizing culture, knowledge, politics

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Benkler argues that these expanded channels for information and cultural production ultimately have real world political and social effects. In particular, they should be understood as expanding human freedom, and further democratizing culture, knowledge, and politics.  He writes, “Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done” (1). Thus, by enabling more individuals than ever before to access and produce knowledge, the networked information economy grants individuals the freedom to “take a more active role” in the production of knowledge, culture, and politics than in the industrial economy. “This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere” (2).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The networked information economy also advances democracy by creating a “networked public sphere,” which is distinct from the preceding “mass-mediated public sphere” in that its communicative activities are much more readily discoverable and searchable than those carried out through print. In addition, the networked public sphere is constituted by a broader range of cooperative news and commentary that diversifies the perspectives presented. Benkler argues the networked public sphere makes culture “more transparent” and “self-reflective” as it provides an accessible space for flexible, impromptu communication of information relevant to public discourse, such as law, policy, and other forms of information, and also lends itself to sophisticated forms of searching and socializing. As an example, he points to the Wikipedia page on Barbie, which provides not only crowd-sourced article about Barbie, but also the history and discussion related to its production. In this history, users are able to see who contributed to the article and detect any controversies that were at play in its development. They are also able to contribute to the article themselves. Benkler argues these functionalities make culture more transparent and malleable:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The basic tools enabled by the Internet—cutting, pasting, rendering, annotating, and commenting—make active utilization and conscious discussion of cultural symbols and artifacts easier to create, sustain, and read more generally

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The flexibility with which cultural artifacts—meaning-carrying objects— can be rendered, preserved, and surrounded by different context and discussion makes it easy for anyone, anywhere, to make a self-conscious statement about culture. They enable what Balkin has called “glomming on”— taking that which is common cultural representation and reworking it into your own move in a cultural conversation. The low cost of storage, and the ubiquitous possibility of connecting from any connection location to any storage space make any such statement persistent and available to others. The ease of commenting, linking, and writing to other locations of statements, in turn, increases the possibility of response and counter response. These conversations can then be found by others, and at least read if not contributed to. In other words, as with other, purposeful peer-produced projects like Wikipedia, the basic characteristics of the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular have made it possible for anyone, anywhere, for any reason to begin to contribute to an accretion of conversation about well-defined cultural objects or about cultural trends and characteristics generally. These conversations can persist across time and exist across distance, and are available for both active participation and passive reading by many people in many places. The result is, as we are already seeing it, the emergence of widely accessible, self-conscious conversation about the meaning of contemporary culture by those who inhabit it (294)

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