The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

© Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 1
Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see www.benkler.org - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the Education Committee of CONGO - Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.

Epigraph

"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 1
Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge

Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development.

A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture.

The rise of greater scope for individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture, however, threatens the incumbents of the industrial information economy.

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

The most advanced economies in the world today have made two parallel shifts that, paradoxically, make possible a significant attenuation of the limitations that market-based production places on the pursuit of the political values central to liberal societies.

The first part of this book is dedicated to establishing a number of basic economic observations.

The removal of the physical constraints on effective information production has made human creativity and the economics of information itself the core structuring facts in the new networked information economy.

Second, we have in fact seen the rise of nonmarket production to much greater importance.

Third, and likely most radical, new, and difficult for observers to believe, is the rise of effective, large-scale cooperative efforts - peer production of information, knowledge, and culture.

It is easy to miss these changes.

Human beings are, and always have been, diversely motivated beings.

In the networked information economy, the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society.

Because the presence and importance of nonmarket production has become so counterintuitive to people living in market-based economies at the end of the twentieth century, part I of this volume is fairly detailed and technical; overcoming what we intuitively "know" requires disciplined analysis.

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

How we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us are core components of the shape of freedom in any society.

Enhanced Autonomy

The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions:

I begin, therefore, with an analysis of the effects of networked information economy on individual autonomy.

These ways in which autonomy is enhanced require a fairly substantive and rich conception of autonomy as a practical lived experience, rather than the formal conception preferred by many who think of autonomy as a philosophical concept.

Democracy: The Networked Public Sphere

The second major implication of the networked information economy is the shift it enables from the mass-mediated public sphere to a networked public sphere.

In chapters 6 and 7, I offer a detailed and updated analysis of this, perhaps the best-known and most contentious claim about the Internet's liberalizing effects.

The empirical and theoretical literature about network topology and use provides answers to all the major critiques of the claim that the Internet improves the structure of the public sphere.

The networked public sphere has also begun to respond to the information overload problem, but without re-creating the power of mass media at the points of filtering and accreditation.

Justice and Human Development

Information, knowledge, and information-rich goods and tools play a significant role in economic opportunity and human development.

From a more substantive and global perspective focused on human development, the freedom to use basic resources and capabilities allows improved participation in the production of information and information-dependent components of human development.

All these efforts are aimed at solving one of the most glaring problems of poverty and poor human development in the global information economy: Even as opulence increases in the wealthier economies - as information and innovation offer longer and healthier lives that are enriched by better access to information, knowledge, and culture - in many places, life expectancy is decreasing, morbidity is increasing, and illiteracy remains rampant.

A Critical Culture and Networked Social Relations

The networked information economy also allows for the emergence of a more critical and self-reflective culture.

Throughout much of this book, I underscore the increased capabilities of individuals as the core driving social force behind the networked information economy.

Four Methodological Comments

There are four methodological choices represented by the thesis that I have outlined up to this point, and therefore in this book as a whole, which require explication and defense.

The Role of Technology in Human Affairs

The first methodological choice concerns how one should treat the role of technology in the development of human affairs.

The idea is simple to explain, and distinct from a naÔve determinism.

The Role of Economic Analysis and Methodological Individualism

It should be emphasized, as the second point, that this book has a descriptive methodology that is distinctly individualist and economic in orientation, which is hardly the only way to approach this problem.

Economic Structure in Liberal Political Theory

The third point has to do with the role of economic structure in liberal political theory.

Second, I am concerned with actual human beings in actual historical settings, not with representations of human beings abstracted from their settings.

Whither the State?

The fourth and last point emerges in various places throughout this book, but deserves explicit note here.

The more modest truth is that my position is not rooted in a theoretical skepticism about the state, but in a practical diagnosis of opportunities, barriers, and strategies for achieving improvements in human freedom and development given the actual conditions of technology, economy, and politics.

The important new fact about the networked environment, however, is the efficacy and centrality of individual and collective social action.

The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment

No benevolent historical force will inexorably lead this technological-economic moment to develop toward an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium.

The battle over the relative salience of the proprietary, industrial models of information production and exchange and the emerging networked information economy is being carried out in the domain of the institutional ecology of the digital environment.

This is not to say that property is in some sense inherently bad.

Commons are another core institutional component of freedom of action in free societies, but they are structured to enable action that is not based on exclusive control over the resources necessary for action.

At the physical layer, the transition to broadband has been accompanied by a more concentrated market structure for physical wires and connections, and less regulation of the degree to which owners can control the flow of information on their networks.

More generally information, knowledge, and culture are being subjected to a second enclosure movement, as James Boyle has recently explored in depth.

Social and economic organization is not infinitely malleable.

This book is offered, then, as a challenge to contemporary liberal democracies.

Notes

1. Barry Wellman et al., "The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism," JCMC 8, no. 3 (April 2003).

2. Langdon Winner, ed., "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" in The Whale and The Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 19-39.

3. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951).

4. Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

5. Manuel Castells, The Rise of Networked Society (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).