I’m still uncertain how useful mindmaps really are (see the Wikinomics one)… does it really help make ideas clearer? Ponder about this as you click here to see a larger image, or check out my interactive version via MindMeister.com. For the lazy bones, I’ve also got an embedded version after the jump…
I’ve been auditing Trebor’s social web class for a while and for this semester, we’re focusing on just one book, in-depth(finately). If its any singular book worth reflecting on, Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks” (2006) stands as a seminal book on the economics of our increasingly networked + humanistic lifestyle.
By being human, he contrasts traditional market economics where we develop and stick by highly efficient systems for production. To be open to the variances of possibilities, he refers to how concepts of self-interest, social justice, potentially unlimited creativity, are privileges we can enjoy because we seem to understand how they could be economically viable and effective. Feel free to print the mindmap (tabloid size) and follow along this very abridged tour…
Before we con go into the meat of Benkler’s book, it would be worthwhile understanding where all these ideas originally came from. On March 9th, 1776, Scottish economist Adam Smith, published a clearly written account of political economy at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Such was his magnum opus, which is widely considered to be the first modern work in the field of economics.
Origins: The Wealth of Nations
Entitled The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam’s work defended free market policies: division of labour, pursuit of self interest, and freedom of trade. Unjustly simplifying his five books (two volumes) worth of comprehensive argument, there were two themes worth noting: 1) The Invisible Hand: How society can benefit when motivated by self-interest, 2) Meritocracy: How individual talent should be allowed free expression for social progress, rather than be shaped by external interference (e.g. unnecessary policies / regulations).
There were clearly more influences for Benkler’s work, and you can examine some of those origins I’ve mentioned in the mindmap (they’re hyperlinked in the interactive one).
The Networked Information Economy
From chapter 1, Benkler introduces the Networked Information Economy, which holds three modes of production: 1) Information (software, science), 2) cultural (films, music), 3) symbology (branding). Synergistically, these modes are enhanced by the advent of cheap and powerful networked processors (e.g. Internet nodes), allowing for these forms of production to be distinctly non-market, decentralized and socially oriented. Where traditional communication technology was centralized, expensive and / or politically inaccessible (e.g. state-owned broadcast stations), the Internet is a pliable platform from which decentralized, cheap and globally accessible means of communication made such production viable (e.g. blogs, wikipedia).
Most of what you’ve read so far puts what we know into economic perspective, but perhaps this is where Benkler’s writing kicks into high gear. His observations of the emerging information production system shows us the important attributes that shows us how this new economy distinct from previous ones. The fact that the new modes of production are non-material (requiring little more than Internet access), leads to the possibility of non-proprietary (sharable) and non-market (non-commercial) goods. This obviously benefits everyone in the long run.
Unconscious Information Goods
What’s more exciting about this notion is the aggregation of unconscious information goods. Since such social productions are accessible to most, they need not be intended for external agenda other than for self-interest (remember Adam’s Wealth of Nations?), and it is such non-market authenticity that allows unlimited potential for creativity and for society to truly observe a true social fabric.
For instance, Flickr combines photography with folksonomy, allowing an emergent quality of visual collective consciousness. Youtube, with its amateur video sharing service, allows for a realistic window to the world, through the lens of globally dispersed, individual cameras (citing Preetam Rai). This collective mind is something more visible now than ever before, and it is even the thing that powers the most popular search engine of today (Google’s PageRank). The effective interweaving of organic and mechanical processes fuels all our non-market oriented productions today.
The human desire to increase social utility of oneself, is somewhat fulfilled by the motivation to participate in the peer production of information, knowledge and culture. There seems to be a need to perpetuate what we already enjoy, which has emerged as informational goods, such as open-source Linux, Wikipedia and SETI@Home. While some of such projects are naturally complex, much of this has been appreciated by information architects, who are able to design online services that encourage participation by being simple, ubiquitous and sometimes socially competitive (exhibiting game-like qualities).
Our Enhanced Autonomy
Benkler notes how all this leads to Enhanced Autonomy, which meant that individuals could do more for themselves. Indeed, with blogs, wikis, podcasting for instance, as long as you are interesting enough, you have the ability to gain attention that rivals that of tradition media sources. Even more profound is how we could individually do so in loose commonality with others. This is largely understood as how we are able to work with strangers, even if we not even sharing similar goals (unconscious).
Take blogging for instance; we might blog as we like and no realize others blogging about similar issues, but aggregated together, give a more complete picture of an issue at hand. Certain memetrackers are able to perform this task of collecting and sorting topics well, such as TechMeme and Megite. Finally, just as we have non-market productions, individuals are more able to contribute cheaply and easily towards non-market organizations. In the traditional real world sense, the United Nations might be seen as an example. In the online world, socially empowering associations such as Wikipedia, Kiva, BookMooch, are examples where self-interest can end up benefiting all participants.
Public Spheres: Mass Media vs. Networked
Given the aspect of blogs, one issue which may arise is how the public sphere has transitioned from the mass-mediated (traditional news agencies) to the networked (blogs, forums). While this may seem like a natural occurrence to us, Benkler deconstructs such spaces in order to understand where the limits lie. In the case of issues arising from public discourse online, the First Generation Critique he brings up is the Babel Objection:
According to the Babel objection, when everyone can speak, no one can be heard, and we devolve either to a cacophony or to the reemergence of money as the distinguishing factor between statements that are heard and those that wallow in obscurity.
Since the early 90s when we realized that web sites could have potential viewership by the millions, but is often not the case. Such was a reason for the dot.bomb in 1999, where expectation were too high and unrealistic.
The Second Generation Critique seemed to somewhat make more sense from the First Generation, where it is a contingent but empirically confirmed observation of how users actually use the network. Some sites are much more visible and widely read than others, forming clusters of varying densities. I am reminded of Clay Shirky’s infamous essay on Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.
Peer-Reviewing for Quality
Benkler notes how “local” clusters—communities of interest, can provide initial vetting and “peer-review-like” qualities to individual contributions made within an interest cluster. This would allow for interesting quality work to rise in visibility, powered by the self-interest of its readers. We can think of this as the Digg, Slashdot, Reddit, NewsVine or even Technorati of today.
Three Problems of Mass Media Public Sphere
Despite these critiques, Benkler argues that the online networked public sphere would stand to do better than commercial mass media at public discourse for several reasons, 1) Logistics: there are too little journalists to account for too many concerns, 2) Accuracy: market concentration leads to the tendency to shape opinion (media biases), 3) Oversimplication: news tends to be inane rather than engaging to please the conservative masses. Ironically, I do feel that an opposing problem about networked vs. mass media public spheres is that the online space may require more individual labor to derive value (I end up being my own journalist)… I myself do get fatigued from reading hundreds of feeds, and would sometimes appreciate processed news in a simple take, with the understanding that it still needs the same kind of fact-checking which we do for online media.
Networked Information Economy: Trivial or Poignant?
One of the biggest concern is how all the benefits of such a networked public sphere would have direct benefits to the real world. After all, how would all the teen-angst blogs and Youtube videos amount to anything? First, to me, they need not be directed for any specific purpose. Second, this is an affordance of the systematically overcapacity Internet… using a sharable resource online wouldn’t remove opportunities for others to use it as well (e.g. carpooling, distributed computing). Still, more directly, while the informational economy would definitely benefit the First World nations, how would it solve the life-threatening problems of the Third World countries? Benkler notes how peer production would indeed allow for economic opportunity and human development. Real-world problems could be addressed collectively online and collaboratively worked on by constructing basic requirements to solve them.
I give the example of the OLPC or the One Laptop Per Child program. Exceptionally talented and dedicated people from academia, industry, the arts, business, and the open-source community all came together in a non-market oriented fashion to help solve third-world issues not by simply fixing them, but providing citizens the means to resolve it themselves. Reminds me of the idiom, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime“.
This is but a partial overview of chapter one, where Benkler shares an immense amount of insight into the new non-market informational economy we participate in. If you’re interested to read the rest of his book, you can either buy it off Amazon or download a free PDF copy of his book which he’s placed under Creative Commons.
On a sidenote about the OLPC
One of my graduate colleagues duly noted how we have yet to hear of how effective the OLPC program has been. For instance, what are the child recipients actually doing with the laptops? Anything socially enriching?
One of the issues that I brought up specific to this case is how there’s a little problem of technological determinism in all this. While the OLPC is designed with collaboration in mind (watch our OLPC video review), the technology is afterall Western liberal centric by design, just as the Internet itself is. For more insight into the effects of how our world is divided into civilizations, do take a look at The Clash of Civilizations by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. In it, he argues that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.
So I leave you this as food for thought: Is the OLPC forcefeeding Third-World countries the enhanced autonomy that the Western First worlds enjoy. Will it work for them despite being of a different civilization?