The Wealth of Networks

It has been ten years since Yochai Benkler – an Israeli-American researcher at Harvard – released The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, one of the most influential books about digital networks and economy ever. It has happened a lot within the field since then, but the book is still not outdated, not even close to it. The Wealth of Networks is demanding – more than 500 pages, tiny letters, and written in an academic style. The text itself makes resistance, just like the content might challenge people holding on to old traditions. Benkler has definitely high ambitions, the scope of the study is broad – maybe too broad?

Communication, culture and information are the core products in every advanced modern economy. The development of an economy based on objects to an economy based on symbols (data, media, brands, currency) has been going on for a long time, more than a century, all over the world.

Benkler examines the emergence and the development of several types of media – radio, television, newspapers and so on – through the 19th and 20th century, and notices the strong centralization due to high production costs; this generation of media was produced on an industrial scale – the Industrial Information Economy. The contemporary world is full of opportunities – a new economic situation is emerging, the Networked Information Economy. This new situation is built up on the easily accessible tools for media production.

Yochai Benkler

To control media is always a kind of power, and the power has been decentralized, as a result of the reduction of physical and economic obstacles. A media production using non-proprietary platforms and strategies has emerged – collaborative production formats, GNU-licenses (open software) and so on.

Benkler explores several aspects of peer-production and sharing economy. He argues that the networked information economy makes it possible to organize production in new ways – one of the new strategies is commons-based collaborations. He looks into the anatomy of commons and gives FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) as an example.

Proprietary and copyright are two crucial issues within the networked information economy. The traditional models are far away from processes and products lacking protection from copyright, patent and proprietary.

Another key component in the network society is the individual’s ability to play an active part in the content production – net-based content services, like Wikipedia, permit users to create knowledge and information instead of staying as consumers. UGC (user-generated content) is today exceptional developed: blogs, wikis, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, Vimeo, IMDb, Flickr and so on. UGC is an example of democratization in content production.

The tools will probably produce a more critical and self-reflective culture, and they will also enable a kind of folk culture to make advantages; the folk culture can easily be produced, shared and consumed in the digital environments. This development was (almost) impossible in the industrial information economy. Benkler is critical to the industrial media production: It is made to entertain the broad audiences and lacking the sharpness of critical journalism, it is unable to process larger amounts of information since the number of data collectors are limited, and it concentrates a lot of political and cultural power to a small group of people.

Benkler recognizes the advantages of the networked communication: Easy access to knowledge and cheap forms of production makes it possible to improve justice and autonomy, locally and globally. The public discourse will be transformed due to the increasing number of diverse voices. This is definitely an improvement in most cases, but at the same time it is important to be prepared for unreliable alternative media, source criticism, trolling, filter bubbles, opaque algorithms and so on.

Products are either rival or non-rival. The value of rival products (for example a Scanian egg cake) decreases when the products are consumed, while non-rival products (for example a song) keep their value. A major part of the digital products is non-rival, and has therefore another kind of structure than for instance the automobile industry or the mining business.

The decreasing costs for the applications remove barriers for production. In the networked information economy, the human (creative) capital will be scarce commodity rather than the economic capital.

The network society supports non-hierarchic groups. Commons-based peer-production does not fit the traditional theories about the rational, egocentric choices. Benkler discusses some of the key-components for this emerging economy – commitment, participation, accreditation, and tools supporting cooperation. When the tools for collaboration are improving, cooperation will be an even stronger driving force. The human being is not as selfish as our societal systems sometimes indicate… Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside world, such as economic rewards or punishments, while intrinsic motivation comes from the inside, for example the satisfaction of completing a task.

You can easily navigate the digital and physical environments at the same time; digital communication does certainly not substitute analogue communication. Benkler introduces the concept of the networked-individual, who dynamically shifts between virtual and physical interactions and communities when necessary.

I don’t need to say this: The Wealth of Networks is published under a Creative Commons license.