WIkimania: Yochai Benkler’s presentation on “The Wealth of Networks”

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August 10th, 2006

In the midst of today’s airline terrorist alert, Middle East war, bombings in Iraq, North Slope pipeline shutdown, and general chaos and confusion, some notes about a technology conference in Cambridge last week is likely to be — as Steve Jobs likes to put it — as stale as yesterday’s oatmeal. But unlike some of the other Wikimania sessions I’ve blogged about during the past few days, this one was not recorded; so, stale and inadequate as blog entry may be, it may be one of the few documented commentaries of Yochai Benkler’s presentation. (As an alternative, you can retrieve the audio version of a 33-minute talk on the “Participation Revolution” that he gave at PopTech 2005 by clicking here.)

180px-Yochai_benkler_boalt_high-res1.JPG0300110561.01._SCTHUMBZZZ_V63872635_.jpgYochai Benkler has achieved a great deal of well-deserved attention in recent months, with the publication of his book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedoms. I first heard about the book a few months ago, when Harvard Business School professor Stephen Bradley lauded it during a keynote presentation at the Cutter Summit conference (see my blog posting on Bradley’s presentation). And during his keynote presentation at this conference, Lawrence Lessig said the book was certainly the most important publication of the year, if not of the past decade.

And with that background, Benkler began his talk by saying that he wanted to present a condensed version of his book — which, by the way, you can download free in PDF format, by visiting the appropriate Wikipedia page here. It’s churlish of me to mention this, but I couldn’t help but feel some disappointment that the PDF version has no hyperlinks to anything else. It was, of course, tremendously generous of Benkler to provide his book, gratis, to the public; but on the other hand, one of the enormous technological benefits of PDF versus dead-tree publication is the ability to embed and preserve hyperlinks — a simple act that would, among other things, greatly increase the likelihood that the book will remain vibrantly alive for many more years into the future.

In any case, Benkler says that his book, and his Wikimania talk, make two claims: first, that Wikipedia (the poster child, of course, for the entire Wikimania conference) is a salient example of a broader phenomenon: the economic transformation that comes from networked computers as a core information-added component to our economy. His second claim is that when a “production system” like Wikipedia is injected into democratic societies, you can see improvements in democracy, social justice, and other social values.

To illustrate this, Benkler provided some statistics from history: in New York City during the period of 1830-1850, he said, the cost of starting a newspaper increased from $10,000 to $2.5 million (I’m pretty sure this was expressed in terms of today‘s dollars, but I’m not absolutely certain). People of moderate means might be able to come up with a $10,000 investment, but for $2.5 million, you needed a business model. And, says Benkler, that need for a formal business model was an early indicator of a central change that took place over the next century as subsequent technologies were introduced (e.g., the telegraph, the telephone, railroads, automobiles, air travel). It created a stark bifurcation between producers and consumers; that is, ordinary consumers could not realistically imagine themselves to be producers as well, in contrast to the way things had operated in previous centuries. As a result, most technology-based businesses became “market-based” (by which I assume he means that they were financed and controlled by the vagaries of the stock market), or government-owned (as in the case of nationalized railroads, telecommunication systems, etc.). And this characterized the basic structure of “information production” for a period of 150 years, from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century, and among other things, it created a passive audience of consumers.

Benkler then segued to a snapshot of today’s environment, using SETI@home as his example: in mid-2004, SETI@home doubled the number of teraflops of computing power available for a computational project, based on the collective grid computing power of some 4.5 million users. This, he says, provided twice the computational power of expensive supercomputers that previously could only be afforded by massive companies or government, e.g., IBM’s Blue Gene computer, the NEC Earth Simulator, etc. So this is the networked information economy — a radically decentralized capitalization of computation, storage, and communications capacity. And it has created a world in which approximately one billion people can connect to one another, and take advantage of this massive computer resource.

Aside from the immediate, direct economic consequences of such a transformation, Benkler says that it has created a new, somewhat more subtle situation: the most important inputs into the core economic activities of the most advanced economies are now widely distributed in the population (as opposed to being centralized within big companies or government agencies); they’re non-fungible (click on the link for a definition of “fungible“), individual, and unique. And for the first time, behaviors that were once on the periphery of production — like social motivations, cooperation, friendship, and decency — have moved to the very core of economic life in the most technically and economically advanced societies.

This has led to what Benkler calls commons-based production — which he defines as production without exclusion, from inputs, from outputs, idividual or collective, commecial or noncommercial. A subset of commons-based production is “peer production” — which he defines as large-scale cooperation among human contributors without price signals or managerial commands. This involves the sharing of material resources, e.g., distributed computing (SETI@home), wireless mesh networks, distributed storage, and mixtures (like Skype).

As an example of peer production, Benkler showed a chart of open source software, specifically mission-critical Web servers. The Apache server product has grown from 0 to 70% market share since 1995, while Microsoft’s proprietary server product has dropped to 20%. But, he says, software is a special case of distributed knowledge production, of which Wikipedia is the central icon. And Wikipedia is not the only form of peer production. Another example is slashdot, flickr, MySpace, AMV’s web site, and deli.cio.us .

Commons-based peer production is based on a radically decentralized authority and the practical capability to act, on an individual basis. It uses an individual’s self-selection to tap diverse motivations, particularly intrinsic and social-relational motivations, and it allows diverse insights, capability, and availability. And commons-based peer production involves diverse cooperation platforms, which consists of task construction, self-selection, communication, humanization, trust construction, norm creation, transparency, monitoring/peer review/discipline, and fairness. Benkler argues that this commons-based social production is a real thing, not just a fad; and because of that, social production is a threat to, and is threatened by, incumbent business models.

Turning from business, Benkler proceeded to talk about politics. Our experience with democracy, he says, is purely with mass-mediated materials; by “democracy,” I think he was referring to the modern, Western form of democracy that began to emerge in the late 18th century, and by “mass-mediated materials,” I think he was referring to newspapers, pamphlets and other materials made possible by the printing press. In any case, our autonomy as citizens is increasing today, because we are moving from (passive) consumers of information to users (and creators) of information.

Benkler gave a then-versus-now example by comparing the manner in which the “Pentagon Papers” expose was orchestrated primarily by the New York Times and the Washington Post, versus the dispute over the alleged problems with voting machines made by Diebold during the 2000 and 2004 elections. The Diebold dispute involved a complex battle, summarized in this Wikipedia article, between individuals, universities, students, and Diebold lawyers who were trying to shut it down. Ultimately, some California State Commission decertified the voting machines. Benkler illustrated all of this with a series of cascading Powerpoint slides (also shown on pages 233 and 234 of his book) that illustrated a much deeper, richer web of grass-roots interactions than the classic Pentagon Papers showdown between the Supreme Court, the U.S. government, and (arguably) the two most powerful newspapers in the country.

Another, far broader, example of this kind of grass-roots participative political action is Congresspedia, which describes itself as “the ‘citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress’ that anyone—including you—can edit.”. And while Benkler argues that “not everyone is a pamphleteer,” he does believe that we are witnessing the re-emergence of a new form of folk culture, based more on active participation than passive consumption. And he believes that in today’s networked world, there’s also more transparency, with critical evaluation moving to community resources like Wikipedia. He illustrated this showing the different versions of the “Barbie” (as in “Barbie doll“) entry in Britannica, versus Wikipedia and a few other sources that I didn’t have time to write down.

Wrapping up, Benkler says that today’s technological threshold conditions enable greater individual human agency, and that we are beginning to practice new ways of being free and equal human beings. But all of this is subject to a growing battle between entrenched forces and new paradigm, a battle that h e believes will continue for another 30-50 years.

As noted earlier, Benkler says that his talk was intended to be a condensed version of the themes and arguments in his book — which, I should point out, consists of 515 pages of dense text, and only a few diagrams and illustrations. I’m still wading through the book, but it does appear that his talk was a pretty cogent summary of what he’s written. And I’ve done my best to summarize his summary, but if you really want to understand the details of Benkler’s important message about this new networked world, you should definitely read The Wealth of Networks.

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