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The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom Paperback – October 23, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In this thick academic book, Yale law professor Benkler offers a comprehensive catalog of flashpoints in the conflict between old and new information creators. In Benkler's view, the new "networked information economy" allows individuals and groups to be more productive than profit-seeking ventures. New types of collaboration, such as Wikipedia or SETI@Home, "offer defined improvements in autonomy, democratic discourse, cultural creation, and justice"-as long as government regulation aimed at protecting old-school information monoliths (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) doesn't succeed. Non-market innovation is a good thing in itself and doesn't even have to threaten entrenched interests, Benkler argues; rather, "social production" can use resources that the industrial information economy leaves behind. Where Benkler excels is in bringing together disparate strands of the new information economy, from the democratization of the newsmedia via blogs to the online effort publicizing weaknesses in Diebold voting machines. Though Benkler doesn't really present any new ideas here, and sometimes draws simplistic distinctions, his defense of the Internet's power to enrich people's lives is often stirring.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"The Wealth of Networks is Internet utopianism for grown-ups. Benkler’s sprawling argument sums up years of work on the economics, sociology, and politics of information technology. He is interested in the world that exists mostly for what it shows about what might be―a charitable definition of the utopian temper. His book is one part introduction to a vast and rapidly growing field of technology, economics, and law, and one part an object lesson in the place of utopian hopes in mature liberal thought. Benkler makes a strong case that we disown utopianism at our peril. In making that argument, he develops a liberal and realistic version of utopian thinking that avoids some of the hazards of the approach."―Jedediah Purdy, American Prospect
"Professor Benkler’s manifesto turns a much-needed spotlight on issues of great scope and moment that deserve far more public attention than they’ve yet gotten. For that reason, we’ve chosen Strategy & Business as the best book about the future in 2006."—Howard Rheingold, The Wealth of Networks (Best Books '06)
"In this book, Benkler establishes himself as the leading intellectual of the information age. Profoundly rich in its insight and truth, this work will be the central text for understanding how networks have changed how we understand the world. No work to date has more carefully or convincingly made the case for a fundamental change in how we understand the economy of society."—Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
"A lucid, powerful, and optimistic account of a revolution in the making."—Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library
"This deeply researched book documents the fundamental changes in the ways in which we produce and share ideas, information, and entertainment. Then, drawing widely on the literatures of philosophy, economics, and political theory, it shows why these changes should be welcomed, not resisted. The trends examined, if allowed to continue, will radically alter our lives—and no other scholar describes them so clearly or champions them more effectively than Benkler."—William W. Fisher III, Hale and Dorr Professor of Intellectual Property Law, Harvard University, Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society
"At last a book that confronts the politics and economics of the Internet in a fundamental way, moving beyond the surface of policy debate to reveal the basic structure of the challenges we confront."—Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, Yale University
"A magnificent achievement. Yochai Benkler shows us how the Internet enables new commons-based methods for producing goods, remaking culture, and participating in public life. The Wealth of Networks is an indispensable guide to the political economy of our digitally networked world."—Jack M. Balkin, Professor of Law and Director of the Information Society Project, Yale University
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Unfortunately, Benkler rarely puts his arguments in explicit terms, making it difficult to parse the implications of what he's saying. He seems to be advocating a much larger role for government in some areas; for instance, after making the bizarre claim that newspapers don't require copyright protection (on the specious grounds that they take in little revenue from licensing their content), he then holds up the BBC as an ideal media establishment. The implication would seem to be that he thinks of nationalization as an acceptable solution to the plight of our newspapers; but surely there is a difference between a public institution that competes with private media, versus a government monopoly on media? But before Benkler can grapple with this, he's moved on to another subject. Although I agree with Benkler's broader argument, many of his specific claims are just frustrating.
Note that the entire book is available freely at its official website, where it can be found both in PDF format and as a public wiki for people to discuss passages in detail.
It is a balanced articulation of what the Internet and Web 2.0 are enabling in the development of new forms of social collaboration that are not adequately recognized as such by both private/regulated market advocates and welfare advocates. One of the things that struck me most is Benkler's capacity to create a perspective in which he can show that these new forms of collectives are rooted in old practices that have existed forever.
He also shows that these practices can gain major significance if:
1. The neutrality of the web, access to the web, Open Source initiatives, and the General Public Licensing type of legislation are improved,
2. The aggressive move toward Intellectual Property laws and regulations, and control by corporations, is counter-balanced.
In Wealth of Networks Yochai Benkler discusses the emergence of a new "networked information economy" that breaks much from earlier industrial modes of production. The rise of technology innovation in creation, distribution, and storage of digital information creates an environment more conducive to the rise of effective non-market, non-proprietary forms of production. Benkler sees the shift provided by the falling marginal costs of creating, distributing, and storing informational goods as an opportunity to rethink the institutional structure by which the information economy is governed. Rather than attempting to harness these changes that fly in the face of conventional economic logic, Benkler advocates opening ourselves to the potential provided by peer production, and a commons based approach to the information economy. He argues that there are both economic and social benefits to the emergence of a significant non-market space in the information economy, but cautions that existing intellectual property laws could serve to retard this growth. Based on his belief that the rise of non-proprietary models will enable greater personal autonomy, personal freedom, expanded political democracy, and more extensive cultural transparency, he advocates for the creation of an institutional structure that will support the emergence of an increasingly non-market informational economy.
Benkler's argument gains strength by utilizing arguments based on both economic efficiency and on normative social desirability. Benkler demonstrates that a commons based and not proprietary approach to informational goods may result in increased efficiency because it reduces the cost to future innovation. He points out that extensive licensing may limit future advancement because so much of informational technological growth relies upon work that has come before. Moreover, he explains that this commons based approach will result in a more equitable distribution of informational goods in the future. Not only will it encourage future innovation in advanced societies, having low-cost informational products will enable lesser developed nations to access key informational goods enabling them to address issues of specific relevance in their nations. He uses the development of medical treatments for diseases plaguing the 3rd world as an example of this by pointing out that in a proprietary model the economic incentives for 1st world pharmaceutical companies to research these is minimal, and that the cost for 3rd world companies or non-profits to do so on their own is prohibitive. A frequent criticism of an informational commons argument based only on reason of equity is that it would be economically detrimental to the major pharmaceutical companies. Thus, by addressing the economic efficiency component as well as social benefit Benkler provides a much stronger and multi-faceted argument.
Benkler clearly articulates the benefits of the networked information economy, but spends very little time on the costs. His prognosis seems positive when viewed from the light of personal freedom and democracy, but for those of us who do have some concern over money the issue of what will happen to the information based economies of the developed world remains somewhat fuzzy. If the model of non-proprietary production comes to dominate it seems it will result in a tremendous transfer of wealth out of the monetarily based market. Will we reap the benefits of increased democracy, and more ability to function autonomously only at the cost of a downward change in our standard of living? How will we replace the monetary value lost to the non-proprietary market? Benkler basically ignores these questions because he is much more concerned with answering questions about the normative social costs and benefits, as well as refuting claims that information is not efficiently produced in a non-proprietary system. However, it seems that there are very real economic implications in terms of monetary cost that would result in significantly shrinking the industrial information economy, and Benkler could have benefited by acknowledging this problem even if it were just in a brief nod to the wrenching effects they may have.
In conclusion I highly recommend Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks because it hits upon the core tensions at the center of the modern informational revolution that is occurring and still rings uncannily true despite the rapid changes that have occurred in the years since its publication. While it lacks acknowledgment of the monetary cost adopting an information commons approach might exact this is largely due to the face that Benkler is more concerned with non-monetary social gain, and in this arena Benkler mounts an impressive, detailed, and incredibly persuasive argument. In many ways this book reads as a call to action with Benkler reminding us to be vigilant because in this moment of transition the choices we make will decide much more than the future of copyright, but the future of our own freedom, and even the future of democracy the world over.
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