Review: The Wealth of Networks

August 4, 2008

The Wealth of Networks
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
By Yochai Benkler
515pp. Yale University Press, 2006

One of the great strengths of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks is that he bases his principal arguments on truths that most of us hold to be self-evident, primarily:

“Information and communication are core elements of autonomy and of public political discourse and decision making.”

Access to information and robust communication is good for individuals, communities and society, Benkler frequently reminds us. The Wealth of Networks is, at one level, simply framed as a manifesto about the desirable benefits of fostering the robust access to and exchange of information, and the negative political and cultural effects of restricted access. The black hats in Benkler’s view are worn by the collective interests of what he calls the industrial information economy. At the top of this food chain are the mass media corporations — the newspaper publishers, broadcast networks, record companies and movie studios who have historically held an oligopoly on media production and distribution because of the high cost getting into the game.

Benkler thoroughly traces how these for-profit information factories have, until the past 15 years or so, made all the decisions about what information gets produced and distributed and how it’s packaged and priced. These decisions are motivated by obvious considerations such as What sells? but also by the more insidious and subversive corporate desires to not arouse the displeasure of advertisers or politicians, concerns that are clearly at odds with fostering autonomy and robust political discourse.

The members of the industrial information club have also effectively lobbied for modifications to, and strict enforcement of, copyright laws in order to extend and defend the royalty-generating power of their properties. This has effectively kept most of the copyrighted works of the twentieth century out of the public domain. Benkler rightfully argues that modern copyright law has had the effect of not only restricting access to information, but also of stifling the creativity of artists who are wary of standing “on the shoulders of giants” who preceded them, for fear of being squashed by the giant corporations that own the copyrights.

Benkler strengthens his indictment of these information restrictions by framing them as a “tax” on the rest of us. We pay it financially when we purchase copyrighted content, and also incur the costs of diminished autonomy and public discourse inflicted by having valuable information withheld from the commons.

The forces of good, as Benkler frames the struggle at the current crossroads, are Internet technology and the nobler aspects of human nature, which have been converging auspiciously to create what he calls the networked information economy. If the industrial information economy is characterized by fat cats with big cigars who want to stop us from freely printing Mickey Mouse onto our party invitations, the networked information economy is driven by such nobler aspirations as non-proprietary strategies for non-market production through mass voluntary, cooperative efforts.

The networked information economy is only recently made possible by the dramatic and continuing reduction in the cost of entry to production and distribution — cheap computer processing and storage capacities, proliferating internet access and expanding bandwidth. Bloggers, open-source programmers, and Wikipedia contributors are part of the social production success story that Benkler repeatedly touts as evidence that the merits of the for-profit paradigm of information production are overstated.

At his most optimistic, Benkler predicts that the social production model will transform the cultural and political landscape by democratizing the creation, aggregation, distribution and filtering of information. “The little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will encounter a culturally contested figure,” a point Benkler illustrates with a full-page chart comparing search results for Barbie on Google, Overture and Yahoo. The internet is now the ultimate baloney detector, giving power to the people and shining the bright light of transparency through the proprietary half-truths of advertising, press releases and spin doctors. What’s not to like?

I give high marks to Benkler for the depth of his analysis, historical perspective and the generally balanced and well-reasoned assessment of the opposing forces in this battle, despite his unvarnished advocacy for social production. Not unlike Chris Anderson in The Long Tail, Benkler’s optimism for the new paradigm he crowns here feels overly exuberant at times. He relies excessively on a paucity of successful social production examples, such as open-source software, Wikipedia, and NASA clickworkers, and fails to convincingly make the case that the model is viably extendible to other avenues of quality information production. That Wikipedia has more page views than, and equal legitimacy with, the Encyclopedia Britannica, may have more to do with the nature of encyclopedias than with the merits of social production. An infinite number of networked, part-time amateur bloggers, no matter how zealous or finely filtered, are unlikely to approach the daily achievement of a few hundred professional journalists at The New York Times. Benkler also devotes a mere five pages to addressing “Critiques of the claims that the Internet has democratizing effects,” including one paragraph on the digital divide, in which he essentially says not to worry because “… the networked information economy is itself an avenue for alleviating maldistribution.” I feel better now. How about you, Africa?

Benkler’s intent in writing The Wealth of Networks is twofold. First, to alert us to the transformative opportunities created by the technological power shift that is enabling social production. Second, to raise the alarm that, unless we re-define intellectual property policies and laws and regulate the infrastructure of the Internet to catalyze social production and access, the powerful interests of the status quo will continue to make the rules, however new the game may be.