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The Wealth of Networks: Remixed Highlights
Hassan Masum, 14 Jul 06

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press, 2006) is an extended philosophical manifesto on the potential of open source decentralized "peer production" - not just as a way of creating software, but in the broader sense of a fundamentally new means of producing goods, services, and freedom itself.

Since the online version of the book is available at author Yochai Benkler's site under a Creative Commons Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike license, I've remixed several of my favorite parts of the book into an essay, which hopefully conveys some of the essence of Benkler's subtle and insightful work.

For all of us, there comes a time on any given day, week, and month, every year and in different degrees over our lifetimes, when we choose to act in some way that is oriented toward fulfilling our social and psychological needs, not our market-exchangeable needs. It is that part of our lives and our motivational structure that social production taps, and on which it thrives.

There is nothing mysterious about this. It is evident to any of us who rush home to our family or to a restaurant or bar with friends at the end of a workday, rather than staying on for another hour of overtime or to increase our billable hours; or at least regret it when we cannot. It is evident to any of us who has ever brought a cup of tea to a sick friend or relative, or received one; to anyone who has lent a hand moving a friend’s belongings; played a game; told a joke, or enjoyed one told by a friend.

What needs to be understood now, however, is under what conditions these many and diverse social actions can turn into an important modality of economic production. When can all these acts, distinct from our desire for money and motivated by social and psychological needs, be mobilized, directed, and made effective in ways that we recognize as economically valuable?

Human beings are, and always have been, diversely motivated beings. We act for material gain, but also for psychological well-being and gratification, and for social connectedness. There is nothing new or earth-shattering about this, except perhaps to some economists.

In the industrial economy in general, and the industrial information economy as well, most opportunities to make things that were valuable and important to many people were constrained by the physical capital requirements of making them. From the steam engine to the assembly line, from the double-rotary printing press to the communications satellite, the capital constraints on action were such that simply wanting to do something was rarely a sufficient condition to enable one to do it. Financing the necessary physical capital, in turn, oriented the necessarily capital-intensive projects toward a production and organizational strategy that could justify the investments. In market economies, that meant orienting toward market production. In state-run economies, that meant orienting production toward the goals of the state bureaucracy. In either case, the practical individual freedom to cooperate with others in making things of value was limited by the extent of the capital requirements of production.

In the networked information economy, the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society. Personal computers and network connections are ubiquitous. This does not mean that they cannot be used for markets, or that individuals cease to seek market opportunities. It does mean, however, that whenever someone, somewhere, among the billion connected human beings, and ultimately among all those who will be connected, wants to make something that requires human creativity, a computer, and a network connection, he or she can do so — alone, or in cooperation with others. He or she already has the capital capacity necessary to do so; if not alone, then at least in cooperation with other individuals acting for complementary reasons.

The result is that a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals, who interact with each other socially, as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system. Sometimes, under conditions I specify in some detail, these nonmarket collaborations can be better at motivating effort and can allow creative people to work on information projects more efficiently than would traditional market mechanisms and corporations. The result is a flourishing nonmarket sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production, based in the networked environment, and applied to anything that the many individuals connected to it can imagine. Its outputs, in turn, are not treated as exclusive property. They are instead subject to an increasingly robust ethic of open sharing, open for all others to build on, extend, and make their own.

If there is one lesson we can learn from globalization and the ever-increasing reach of the market, it is that the logic of the market exerts enormous pressure on existing social structures. If we are indeed seeing the emergence of a substantial component of nonmarket production at the very core of our economic engine - the production and exchange of information, and through it of information-based goods, tools, services, and capabilities - then this change suggests a genuine limit on the extent of the market. Such a limit, growing from within the very market that it limits, in its most advanced loci, would represent a genuine shift in direction for what appeared to be the ever-increasing global reach of the market economy and society in the past half-century.

I treat property and markets as just one domain of human action, with affordances and limitations. Their presence enhances freedom along some dimensions, but their institutional requirements can become sources of constraint when they squelch freedom of action in nonmarket contexts. Calibrating the reach of the market, then, becomes central not only to the shape of justice or welfare in a society, but also to freedom.

What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination. This kind of information production by agents operating on a decentralized, nonproprietary model is not completely new. Science is built by many people contributing incrementally — not operating on market signals, not being handed their research marching orders by a boss — independently deciding what to research, bringing their collaboration together, and creating science. What we see in the networked information economy is a dramatic increase in the importance and the centrality of information produced in this way.

No benevolent historical force will inexorably lead this technological-economic moment to develop toward an open, diverse, liberal equilibrium. If the transformation I describe as possible occurs, it will lead to substantial redistribution of power and money from the twentieth-century industrial producers of information, culture, and communications — like Hollywood, the recording industry, and perhaps the broadcasters and some of the telecommunications services giants — to a combination of widely diffuse populations around the globe, and the market actors that will build the tools that make this population better able to produce its own information environment rather than buying it ready-made.

None of the industrial giants of yore are taking this reallocation lying down. The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse. The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from the incumbents’ assaults. It is precisely to develop an understanding of what is at stake and why it is worth fighting for that I write this book.

Imagine three storytelling societies: the Reds, the Blues, and the Greens. Each society follows a set of customs as to how they live and how they tell stories. Among the Reds and the Blues, everyone is busy all day, and no one tells stories except in the evening. In the evening, in both of these societies, everyone gathers in a big tent, and there is one designated storyteller who sits in front of the audience and tells stories. It is not that no one is allowed to tell stories elsewhere. However, in these societies, given the time constraints people face, if anyone were to sit down in the shade in the middle of the day and start to tell a story, no one else would stop to listen.

Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides which stories to tell. Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night by simple majority vote. Every member of the community is eligible to offer him- or herself as that night’s storyteller, and every member is eligible to vote.

Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere. Everyone tells stories. People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes in very large groups. Stories in each of these societies play a very important role in understanding and evaluating the world. They are the way people describe the world as they know it. They serve as testing grounds to imagine how the world might be, and as a way to work out what is good and desirable and what is bad and undesirable.

Now consider Ron, Bob, and Gertrude, individual members of the Reds, Blues, and Greens, respectively. Ron’s perception of the options open to him and his evaluation of these options are largely controlled by the hereditary storyteller. He can try to contact the storyteller to persuade him to tell different stories, but the storyteller is the figure who determines what stories are told. To the extent that these stories describe the universe of options Ron knows about, the storyteller defines the options Ron has.

Bob’s autonomy is constrained not by the storyteller, but by the majority of voters among the Blues. These voters select the storyteller, and the way they choose will affect Bob’s access to stories profoundly. If the majority selects only a small group of entertaining, popular, pleasing, or powerful (in some other dimension, like wealth or political power) storytellers, then Bob’s perception of the range of options will be only slightly wider than Ron’s, if at all. The locus of power to control Bob’s sense of what he can and cannot do has shifted. It is not the hereditary storyteller, but rather the majority.

Gertrude is in a very different position. First, she can decide to tell a story whenever she wants to, subject only to whether there is any other Green who wants to listen. She is free to become an active producer except as constrained by the autonomy of other individual Greens. Second, she can select from the stories that any other Green wishes to tell, because she and all those surrounding her can sit in the shade and tell a story. No one person, and no majority, determines for her whether she can or cannot tell a story. No one can unilaterally control whose stories Gertrude can listen to. And no one can determine for her the range and diversity of stories that will be available to her from any other member of the Greens who wishes to tell a story.

How, one might worry, can a system of information production enhance the ability of an individual to author his or her life, if it is impossible to tell whether this or that particular story or piece of information is credible, or whether it is relevant to the individual’s particular experience? Will individuals spend all their time sifting through mounds of inane stories and fairy tales, instead of evaluating which life is best for them based on a small and manageable set of credible and relevant stories?

Having too much information with no real way of separating the wheat from the chaff forms what we might call the Babel objection. Individuals must have access to some mechanism that sifts through the universe of information, knowledge, and cultural mores in order to whittle them down to a manageable and usable scope. The question then becomes whether the networked information economy, given the human need for filtration, actually improves the information environment of individuals relative to the industrial information economy.

There are three elements to the answer: First, as a baseline, it is important to recognize the power that inheres in the editorial function. The extent to which information overload inhibits autonomy relative to the autonomy of an individual exposed to a well-edited information flow depends on how much the editor who whittles down the information flow thereby gains power over the life of the user of the editorial function, and how he or she uses that power. Second, there is the question of whether users can select and change their editor freely, or whether the editorial function is bundled with other communicative functions and sold by service providers among which users have little choice.

Finally, there is the understanding that filtration and accreditation are themselves information goods, like any other, and that they too can be produced on a commons-based, nonmarket model, and therefore without incurring the autonomy deficit that a reintroduction of property to solve the Babel objection would impose. From the discussions of Wikipedia to the moderation and metamoderation scheme of Slashdot, and from the sixty thousand volunteers that make up the Open Directory Project to the PageRank system used by Google, the means of filtering data are being produced within the networked information economy using peer production and the coordinate patterns of nonproprietary production more generally.

Developments in network topology theory and its relationship to the structure of the empirically mapped real Internet offer a map of the networked information environment that is quite different from the naive model of "everyone a pamphleteer." To the limited extent that these findings have been interpreted for political meaning, they have been seen as a disappointment — the real world, as it turns out, does not measure up to anything like that utopia. However, that is the wrong baseline. There never has been a complex, large modern democracy in which everyone could speak and be heard by everyone else. The correct baseline is the one-way structure of the commercial mass media.

The networked information economy makes individuals better able to do things for and by themselves, and makes them less susceptible to manipulation by others than they were in the mass-media culture. In this sense, the emergence of this new set of technical, economic, social, and institutional relations can increase the relative role that each individual is able to play in authoring his or her own life.

The networked information economy also promises to provide a much more robust platform for public debate. It enables citizens to participate in public conversation continuously and pervasively, not as passive recipients of “received wisdom” from professional talking heads, but as active participants in conversations carried out at many levels of political and social structure. Individuals can find out more about what goes on in the world, and share it more effectively with others. They can check the claims of others and produce their own, and they can be heard by others, both those who are like-minded and opponents.

Whether their actions are in the domain of political organization (like the organizers of, or of education and professional attainment (as with the case of Jim Cornish, who decided to create a worldwide center of information on the Vikings from his fifth-grade schoolroom in Gander, Newfoundland), the networked information environment opens new domains for productive life that simply were not there before. In doing so, it has provided us with new ways to imagine our lives as productive human beings.

Writing a free operating system or publishing a free encyclopedia may have seemed quixotic a mere few years ago, but these are now far from delusional. Human beings who live in a material and social context that lets them aspire to such things as possible for them to do, in their own lives, by themselves and in loose affiliation with others, are human beings who have a greater realm for their agency. We can live a life more authored by our own will and imagination than by the material and social conditions in which we find ourselves.

How will the emergence of a substantial sector of nonmarket, commons-based production in the information economy affect questions of distribution and human well-being? The pessimistic answer is, very little. Hunger, disease, and deeply rooted racial, ethnic, or class stratification will not be solved by a more decentralized, nonproprietary information production system. Without clean water, basic literacy, moderately well-functioning governments, and universal practical adoption of the commitment to treat all human beings as fundamentally deserving of equal regard, the fancy Internet-based society will have little effect on the billions living in poverty or deprivation, either in the rich world, or, more urgently and deeply, in poor and middle-income economies.

Despite the caution required in overstating the role that the networked information economy can play in solving issues of justice, it is important to recognize that information, knowledge, and culture are core inputs into human welfare. Agricultural knowledge and biological innovation are central to food security. Medical innovation and access to its fruits are central to living a long and healthy life. Literacy and education are central to individual growth, to democratic self-governance, and to economic capabilities. Economic growth itself is critically dependent on innovation and information.

For all these reasons, information policy has become a critical element of development policy and the question of how societies attain and distribute human welfare and well-being. Access to knowledge has become central to human development.

Proprietary rights are designed to elicit signals of people’s willingness and ability to pay. In the presence of extreme distribution differences like those that characterize the global economy, the market is a poor measure of comparative welfare. A system that signals what innovations are most desirable and rations access to these innovations based on ability, as well as willingness, to pay, over-represents welfare gains of the wealthy and under-represents welfare gains of the poor. Twenty thousand American teenagers can simply afford, and will be willing to pay, much more for acne medication than the more than a million Africans who die of malaria every year can afford to pay for a vaccine.

The emergence of commons-based techniques — particularly, of an open innovation platform that can incorporate farmers and local agronomists from around the world into the development and feedback process through networked collaboration platforms — promises the most likely avenue to achieve research oriented toward increased food security in the developing world.

It promises a mechanism of development that will not increase the relative weight and control of a small number of commercial firms that specialize in agricultural production. It will instead release the products of innovation into a self-binding commons — one that is institutionally designed to defend itself against appropriation. It promises an iterative collaboration platform that would be able to collect environmental and local feedback in the way that a free software development project collects bug reports — through a continuous process of networked conversation among the user-innovators themselves.

Laboratories have two immensely valuable resources that may be capable of being harnessed to peer production. Most important by far are postdoctoral fellows. These are the same characters who populate so many free software projects, only geeks of a different feather. They are at a similar life stage. They have the same hectic, overworked lives, and yet the same capacity to work one more hour on something else, something interesting, exciting, or career enhancing, like a special grant announced by the government.

The other resources that have overcapacity might be thought of as petri dishes, or if that sounds too quaint and old-fashioned, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines or electrophoresis equipment. The point is simple. Laboratory funding currently is silo-based. Each lab is usually funded to have all the equipment it needs for run-of-the-mill work, except for very large machines operated on time-share principles. Those machines that are redundantly provisioned in laboratories have downtime. That downtime coupled with a postdoctoral fellow in the lab is an experiment waiting to happen. If a group that is seeking to start a project defines discrete modules of a common experiment, and provides a communications platform to allow people to download project modules, perform them, and upload results, it would be possible to harness the overcapacity that exists in laboratories.

In principle, although this is a harder empirical question, the same could be done for other widely available laboratory materials and even animals for preclinical trials on the model of, “brother, can you spare a mouse?” One fascinating proposal and early experiment at the University of Indiana - Purdue University Indianapolis was suggested by William Scott, a chemistry professor. Scott proposed developing simple, low-cost kits for training undergraduate students in chemical synthesis, but which would use targets and molecules identified by computational biology as potential treatments for developing-world diseases as their output. With enough redundancy across different classrooms and institutions around the world, the results could be verified while screening and synthesizing a significant number of potential drugs. The undergraduate educational experience could actually contribute to new experiments, as opposed simply to synthesizing outputs that are not really needed by anyone.

In February 2001, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) asked Yale University, which held the key South African patent on stavudine — one of the drugs then most commonly used in combination therapies —for permission to use generic versions in a pilot AIDS treatment program. At the time, the licensed version of the drug, sold by Bristol-Myers-Squibb (BMS), cost $1,600 per patient per year. A generic version, manufactured in India, was available for $47 per patient per year.

At that point in history, thirty-nine drug manufacturers were suing the South African government to strike down a law permitting importation of generics in a health crisis, and no drug company had yet made concessions on pricing in developing nations. Within weeks of receiving MSF’s request, Yale negotiated with BMS to secure the sale of stavudine for fifty-five dollars a year in South Africa. Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, and other universities have, in the years since, entered into similar adhoc agreements with regard to developing-world applications or distribution of drugs that depend on their patented technologies. These successes provide a template for a much broader realignment of how universities use their patent portfolios to alleviate the problems of access to medicines in developing nations.

A technology transfer officer who has successfully provided a royalty-free license to a nonprofit concerned with developing nations has no obvious metric in which to record and report the magnitude of her success (saving X millions of lives or displacing Y misery), unlike her colleague who can readily report X millions of dollars from a market-oriented license, or even merely Y dozens of patents filed. Universities must consider more explicitly their special role in the global information and knowledge production system. If they recommit to a role focused on serving the improvement of the lot of humanity, rather than maximization of their revenue stream, they should adapt their patenting and licensing practices appropriately.

The rise of commons-based information production, of individuals and loose associations producing information in nonproprietary forms, presents a genuine discontinuity from the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. It brings with it great promise, and great uncertainty. We have early intimations as to how market-based enterprises can adjust to make room for this newly emerging phenomenon — IBM’s adoption of open source, Second Life’s adoption of user-created immersive entertainment, or Open Source Technology Group’s development of a platform for Slashdot.

We also have very clear examples of businesses that have decided to fight the new changes by using every trick in the book, and some, like injecting corrupt files into peer-to-peer networks, that are decidedly not in the book. Law and regulation form one important domain in which these battles over the shape of our emerging information production system are fought. As we observe these battles; as we participate in them as individuals choosing how to behave and what to believe, as citizens, lobbyists, lawyers, or activists; as we act out these legal battles as legislators, judges, or treaty negotiators, it is important that we understand the normative stakes of what we are doing.

We have an opportunity to change the way we create and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. By doing so, we can make the twenty-first century one that offers individuals greater autonomy, political communities greater democracy, and societies greater opportunities for cultural self-reflection and human connection.

We can remove some of the transactional barriers to material opportunity, and improve the state of human development everywhere. Perhaps these changes will be the foundation of a true transformation toward more liberal and egalitarian societies. Perhaps they will merely improve, in well-defined but smaller ways, human life along each of these dimensions. That alone is more than enough to justify an embrace of the networked information economy by anyone who values human welfare, development, and freedom.

(This remix made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.)

Update: this remix got remixed, at Outside the Market.

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While i agree that open information systems may lead to better distributed information, I fear that this will be limited to the privaledged.

this sentance itself gives the clue why...

- Twenty thousand American teenagers can simply afford, and will be willing to pay, much more for acne medication than the more than a million Africans who die of malaria every year can afford to pay for a vaccine. -

20 years ago people would likely have said that pharmaceutical inovations would stop the most dangerous diseases in the developing world. This has not happened because there are more issues to the question of access then royalties alone.

While more information is available over the internet, most of the world does not have access to a computer, nor are they likely to have that.

After 20 years of IMF restructuring in Africa and Asia, the heart has been torn out of many nations' education systems. How will people who no longer have access to teachers that will make them literate participate in the open information future. How will people in the mega-slums afford the food that is being grown by the farms that benefit from this new knowledge source, when it is being shipped directly to richer populations overseas?

Posted by: alex on 16 Jul 06

I am working my way through the entire book, but fear that I may reach Alex's conclusion-- that the advantages described require investments that only those of us in developed countries enjoy.

This may be an artifact of the way the author tries to distinguish "market" mediated production/exchanges from "social" production/exchanges, or the focus on the internet as the "model" network.

Benkler's "Coase's Penguin" was much more hopeful, and in fairness, the second half of the book might be as well.

This kind of thinking, and the detailed treatment that Benkler provides (so far), is very important and very useful.

I'll be interested to follow the comments here.

Posted by: j david on 17 Jul 06



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