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Yochai Benkler

posted by Joel Turnipseed   Nov 02, 2007

I think it’s safe to say that this will be the chewiest of my interviews this week—and also the most important. Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 was good, but Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks may well be looked on in the future as highly as John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is today. If you want a deep, yet readable, look into the issues of how the ‘Net affects cultural production, social justice, and economic development, The Wealth of Networks is the best discussion available. Yochai Benkler is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I’m thrilled that he took the time to answer a few questions for me this week.

JT: I first learned about your book over at the Crooked Timber blog—and thought the discussion of your book there was of exceptionally high quality. Moreover, your book has been far more often mentioned than reviewed in the press. Which poses a kind of serial question: When traditional journalists (I’m thinking specifically of Richard Schickel’s rant in the L.A. Times this summer) bemoan the rise of blog culture, do they know what they’re talking about? Have they looked? From your side: How did the Crooked Timber—or other blog receptions—compare to traditional media receptions?

YB: I thought the discussion on Crooked Timber was in fact excellent, as good a discussion as you would get in a thoughtful seminar, whether academic or whenever you get a collection of thoughtful people in a book club. There should be nothing surprising about this, any more than there should be anything surprising about there being blogs that are utter nonsense.

The critical shift represented by the networked information economy is that on the order of a billion people on the planet have the physical capacity to produce and communicate information, knowledge, and culture. This means, in the case of writing, millions or tens of millions of people, rather than a few thousand, get to write in ways that are publicly visible. Of necessity, there will be a wide range.

The probability that any newspaper, however well-heeled, will be able to put together the kind of legal analytic brainpower that my friend Jack Balkin has put together on his blog, Balkinization, is zero. They can’t afford it. On the other hand, even the Weekly World News is tame and mainstream by comparison to the quirkiness or plain stupidity some people can exhibit. The range is simply larger. That’s what it means to have a truly diverse public sphere.

If you want to find evidence of nonsense, as of course it is important to people whose sense of self-worth depends on the special role traditional mass media play in the public sphere, you will easily find it. If you want to find the opposite, that too is simple. What’s left is to wait and see over time whether one overwhelms the other. As I wrote in the book, I do not think we are intellectual lemmings. I don’t think we jump over the abyss of drivel, but rather that in this environment of plenty we learn to develop our own sense of which is which, and where to find what. Perfect information about all the good things, we won’t have. But we don’t have it now either. Instead we have new patterns of linking, filtering, recommendation, that allow us to do reasonably well in navigating a much more diverse and interesting information environment than mass media was able to deliver.

JT: Harvard University Press published your book—but you’re also giving it away free on the Web. Which is great, except: it’s 527 PDF pages long, which makes it much more expensive (even double-sided!) to print at home than it is to buy the actual book. What does this tell us about some of the complications inherent in statements like “information wants to be free,” or about things like market efficiency and the marginal costs of distributing information? After all, a book is not just the information inside, but a produced technology—and, often times, a beloved artifact.

YB: It was Yale University Press. Harvard was not willing to release the book under a Creative Commons license, which was the tie-breaker for me between the two presses. As for the online free availability, I think that the facts you describe are part of what gives publishers freedom to experiment with the medium now. The display technology is still sufficiently far behind paper and print, that it’ll be a good few years before free online availability will translate into online delivery in the mode of music or, now, video.

But for me what was more important than simply the freedom to download, was the freedom to do things with the book. That’s why I held out for licensing the book under a CC noncommercial sharealike license. The fact that people were able to take the book and convert it into other formats, including making readings of some portions; that some people began to translate portions of the book; these were the reasons that mattered.

I think for academic books in particular, where people may want to assign short portions, or to have students respond to materials, the flexible, permissive book format offers a good complimentary platform. Similarly, in terms of the economics of academic publication, I think the press found that they did much better than usual with this book, partly, at least, because many more people got partial exposure to it online, and then bought it. But I don’t think that this is the long-term strategy for academic presses. Because ultimately the display technology will catch up. What is the right path for academic presses is to use this transition period to learn how to make online books and book sites into powerful learning platforms, and to use those capabilities to reorient the universities from the trend to treating the presses as self-sustained centers, back to a time when the presses were part of what universities needed to subsidize from their main teaching role—as part of their effort to disseminate the knowledge they produce.

JT: I was disappointed that you didn’t mention Lewis Hyde’s The Gift in your own book. Do you know it? I ask because I thought it would be too easy to simply ask about the “Carr-Benkler Wager,” which, if I’m stating it correctly, concerns the question about whether or not the top Web sites (blogs, Flickr, Wikipedia, YouTube, et. al.) would all be run by professionals in the future. Nicholas Carr says “Yes,” and you say “No.” The problem I have with this is way of framing the question is that it seems to misunderstand why people create—even professionals! Do you take this bet seriously? Regardless of whether you do, isn’t the matter of all production—whether it’s the manufacture of goods, delivery of services, scientific research, artistic creation, or whatever—a lot more complicated than the matter of getting paid for it?

YB: I agree that production, in particular intellectual production, is much more complex than a matter of getting paid for it. I spent a lot of the book, both in Part I on the economics of commons-based individual and peer production, and in Part II in trying to understand the production of the public sphere, both political and cultural, as well as how the commons relate to autonomy and peer production applies to justice and development, trying to work through the complexities of information and knowledge production in different industries, and of different types. My basic claim is that people are diversely motivated, and that large-scale collaboration platforms, with permeable boundaries, freedom and capacity of action, on materials modularized for diversely-sized contributions, allow for the pooling of a diverse range of human talent, insight, experience, and wisdom—much more so than was feasible in more slow-moving organizations, and more richly diverse than a purely price-based system can characterize and monetize.

That the “Carr-Benkler Wager” got boiled down to a soundbite is not my fault. Even Carr’s original critique was twofold: partly about whether there was simply inefficient pricing, and partly about whether we see a re-emergence of hierarchy. I answered only half his challenge, in a short reply post to his original. This was then amplified and simplified. Not necessarily the best example of where the ‘Net improves the quality of information.

JT: Then again… we all like to get paid, don’t we? Whether the pay is in attention, respect, money, what have you—it can be hard to come by: even if you’re just out to Homestead the Noosphere, there are millions of others trying to do the same thing. Blogs do seem to be a way to break through the near-monopolies of mass media, but then there’s this question of the Power Law distribution. In The Wealth of Networks, you propose that the Power Law doesn’t perfectly apply, and talk about how “small world” effects and “shallow paths” actually make the Web and blogs—just as subject to hierarchy as any other network—more porous and democratic than traditional media. Jessica Hagy, to whom I talked earlier this week, is a good example of breaking through—and Douglas Wolk’s idea of blogs as individual gravitational centers with no sun around which to orbit will stick with me for a while. Can you talk briefly about this “bow-tie effect?”

YB: The basic problem as to which I applied the work on link distribution was the claim that discourse was fragmented, and therefore unable to support a public sphere. That is, of course, related to the first question about quality and diversity of information on the ‘Net. The basic insight we get from the empirical work that has been done on link distribution is that we do not randomly bump around from one irrelevant site to another, but that we see a relatively structured web of attention and mutual pointing that marks what is, and what is not, relevant and important to us.

It combines, first, the fact that some sites are in fact much more highly connected than others—this is the top of the power law distribution. It continues with the fact that sties cluster topically. That is, sites about politics are more densely interlinked to each other than they are to sites about bowling. Interestingly, although there is now some evidence to the contrary, it appears that when the clusters are small enough, the lower end of the distribution is less skew—the tail is fatter than the head. That is, there may be a few dozen, or even a hundred, sites, with moderate interlinking, instead of just no links or one link.

If this is true, then it suggests that topics get discussed in intensely-interlinked—and hence interested—clusters of interest, and those topics that reach the attention of this group as important get transmitted up the backbone of attention by the more highly-visible sites of the cluster, to larger clusters, and so on up.

The bow-tie structure is a pattern that emerges in networks where about 30% of the sites are densely interlinked and can be reach from and reach into any other site; and in the 20% of sites that can only reach into the core (these may be new sites, not yet liinked-to); sites than can only be reached from the core (these may be documents, or internal sites not linking further); and sites that are just not connected to the core at all. My point in focusing on this structure was that it suggested that over 50% of the sites on the ‘Net could reach out; and over 50% could be reached from almost anywhere. And by comparison to mass media, this is a vast improvement relative to who could be heard, and who could reach what information.

All this went into my claim that, while the networked public sphere was not the utopia some in the early 1990s would have liked it to be, it was certainly an appreciable and important improvement over the industrial, mass media structure of the public sphere in the century and a half that preceded it.

The Wealth of Networks was described, I believe it was by Time magazine, as “utopian.” I didn’t see it that way, but rather as a book that was as full of sense as it was of hope. But it was a contingent hope: one based on things like ‘Net neutrality, gift economies, open access to information, and so on. Can you leave us with your most hard-headed vision of the hope contained in—and possibly sustained by—The Wealth of Networks?

YB: I agree that The Wealth of Networks is not utopian. I think realistically we can see a large improvement in the number of people who can effectively participate in the production of information, knowledge, and culture. I think more people are creating media; more people have access to a community or site where they can speak their minds. More does not mean everyone. Disparities in access and skill continue. But there are many more, and more diversely motivated and organized voices and creative talents participating than was feasible ten years ago, much less 30 years ago.

I think there are certain well-defined threats to this model. If we end up with a proprietary communications platform, such as the one that the FCC’s spectrum and broadband policies are aiming to achieve; and on that platform we will have proprietary, closed platforms like the iPhone, then much of the promise of the networked environment will be lost.

When the FCC and Congress had an opportunity to make parts of the 700MHz band an open spectrum, to which any device manufacturer could have built devices that would have created user-owned networks, on the model of WiFi but more powerful, they failed in imagination and wisdom. When they were presented by Google with a much thinner, but at least well-reasoned and positive, alternative, to make the 700MHz auction at least require purchasers to resell to anyone who wanted wholesale carriage, so that at least there could be competition, they balked at that too.

We now also see the rising tide of fear leading to a resurgence of “trusted systems”—systems that assume that the owners of computers are either incompetent or malevolent, so the machine has to be “trusted” against its owner. This too can undermine the openness, innovation, and expressive freedom of the networked environment. The threats are many. Some of them come from intentional efforts to hobble the ‘Net in order to preserve incumbent business models. The interventions of the telecomms and the strong copyright lobbies fall into these categories. Some come from simple lack of appreciation for the central role that open, radically decentralized platforms are playing, and it is not necessarily a regulatory mistake as a business mistake.

I am still optimistic. It does seem that people have been opting for open systems when they have been available, and that has provided a strong market push against the efforts to close down the ‘Net. Social practices, more prominently the widespread adoption of participation in peer production, social sites, and DIY media, are the strongest source of pushback. As people practice these freedoms, one hopes that they will continue to support them, politically, but most powerfully perhaps, with their buying power and the power to divert their attention to open platforms rather than closed. This, the fact that decentralized action innovates more quickly, and that people seem to crave the freedom and creativity that it gives them, is the most important force working in favor of our capturing and extending the value of an open network.

Reader comments

AlanNov 02, 2007 at 1:54PM

Coincidently a review of “Wealth of Networks” is the current Editor’s pick at ACM Reviews.com

simonfNov 02, 2007 at 7:35PM

Gosh. Interesting piece but impossible to have been written by, written about or read with seriousness outside the USA at this stage of the economic cycle (long or short). Good blogs are the chinoiserie of the noughties.

shelley nobleNov 03, 2007 at 4:21PM

Amen. There are groups working to bring the Net to more of the developing world, the XO laptop project comes to mind (http://www.laptopgiving.org/). I see Mr. Benkler’s assessments to be at once utterly exciting and articulate.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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