Ken-ichi's Reviews > The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler
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Nov 17, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: learning, technology, economics
Read from February 24, 2015 to January 29, 2016

This book is too big to fit in my brain, and I read it too slowly to have any kind of coherent response. On the whole, I agree: peer production is both righteous and effective for a lot of things, a networked information economy is generally better than the mass media information economy, and we should be very afraid of legal actions that threaten these things (e.g. erosion of net neutrality, increased intellectual property rights, etc). I already believed in those things (I am, after all, both a participant in and purveyor of peer-production systems), but it was nice to hear them echoed back to me in excruciatingly deliberate academic prose. And by nice I mean gratifying in the way that dentistry is gratifying. Certain neural pathways now feel free of plaque.

I think the most important underlying theme is the same that I've been struggling to derive from other current movements: there are no absolute improvements, only net gains. The Internet didn't suddenly create the techno-utopia many people thought it would, where everyone exchanges information freely and no is subject to centralized control, but it did push us in that direction. Occupy didn't end income inequality and usher in an anarchic utopia (in fact things have only gotten worse), but at least people talk about income inequality.

Ok, onto the collection of vague complaints that I shall call a review.

One of Benkler's main arguments is that a networked information economy yields a net increase in freedom. As he writes on p. 130, "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." To re-iterate my point about incremental gains, it's important to emphasize that his point is about a relative improvement over mass media, since I think Benkler would admit that a networked information economy mediated by the likes of Facebook and Google is very, very susceptible to manipulation, though perhaps less susceptible than one mediated by NBC and Comcast.

I think there are a couple problems with this, even if it's accurate. First of all, those with the knowledge and ability to manipulate information (e.g. geeks) will always be more free in this scenario than those who can't. How free are you if your every information transaction (e.g. looking at this review) is being tracked by third parties (e.g. Goodreads advertisers or Goodreads' parent company, Amazon) who then use that preference profile to present you with other information to consume (e.g. other reviews, other books to read), thereby limiting your choices? And what if you aren't savvy enough to know that this is happening, or don't know how to circumvent this kind of profiling? You could argue that combating this is just a matter of education, but in my experience the sharing economy is not providing that education, and most people are just as blithely unaware of how their networked information consumption is being manipulated as they were under the mass media. Or, like me, they *are* aware but just accept it because it's too inconvenient to disable cookies or whatever. Does it matter if freedom exists if no one has the will to exercise it?

There's also the issue of economic freedom. Benkler argues heavily against intellectual property for most information goods, arguing persuasively that in a lot of industries, like software, property rights over information are actually detrimental, not just to the greater good of making better things from these goods that everyone can benefit from (e.g. better software), but at the level of firms and individuals, who can reap more profit by creating, customizing, and configuring information goods for special needs than they can by licensing information property. Fine, but... what if you don't want to do that? What if you're a coder and you don't like working with clients. You make cool things, but you don't want to deal with people and their endless stupid ideas on how to change your cool things to suit their needs? If you can't sympathize with a techie view on this, imagine a musician who makes great music, but hates to perform. If she cannot make money off selling the right to listen to her music (i.e. via exercising intellectual property rights), then she *has* to perform, or work another job. This actually seems like a net decrease in economic freedom, since the musician can't just make music like she used to in the old economy.

This extends beyond intellectual property into peer production: the more goods that get produced via peer-production, the less ways there are to make a living. Taxi driver, bed-and-breakfast operator, encyclopedia editor / researcher, anything-other-than-wedding photographer, these are all jobs that are vanishing or gone thanks to "disruption" via peer production and/or the sharing economy, whatever you want to call it. Ostensibly the new alternatives create better goods, or are more efficient, but they create some freedoms (free access to encyclopedic knowledge, freedom to work when you want to) at the expense of others (freedom to work the job you can or want to). Has freedom increased if you are no longer free to take photographs *for a living*?

Also, just to give you a taste of the academicese:

I claim that the modalities of cultural production and exchange are a proper subject for normative evaluation within a broad range of liberal political theory. Culture is a social-psychological-cognitive fact of human existence. Ignoring it, as rights-based and utilitarian versions of liberalism tend to do, disables political theory from commenting on central characteristics of a society and its institutional frameworks.

That's not typical, but certainly not exceptional either.

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Reading Progress

02/24/2015 marked as: currently-reading
01/29/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Joshua This is an excellent book. It's very dense; very academic. It took me a while to get through it, but every page seemed to have nuggets of brilliance. Benkler's arguments are extremely rigorous.

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