The Wealth of Networks

A review of the book The Wealth of Networks. How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler.
Gill-nets are set out at a wharf on the Pacific coast, Canada, 1963.

Gill-nets are set out at a wharf on the Pacific coast, Canada, 1963. Source: The National Archives UK.

A review of the book The Wealth of Networks. How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler, which has recently been published in Spanish by Icaria publishers, and is being launched at the CCCB as part of a session on Commons, Public Space Network and the Geopolitics of the Internet with the participation of the author on 25 February 2015. The book looks at how information technologies enable extensive forms of collaboration that can have transformative effects on the economy and on society, as in the cases of Wikipedia, Podemos at the political level, and Uber at the economic level, for example. Yochai Benkler is co-Director of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy and Commons-Based Peer Production

In 2006, the book The Wealth of Networks played a crucial role in drawing the world’s attention to a phenomenon that was still unfamiliar to large sectors of the population. Although it may not have been the first text written on the subject, it was the first reference book that explained the emerging phenomenon of collaborative production and offered keys for interpreting and understanding its potential. It’s main message could be summed up as: “Hey! Something’s going on here and it’s not inconsequential. It boosts the potential of freedom and autonomy and shifts the balance of power between markets, the State, and civil society.” Almost a decade after the release of the first edition of the book – and partly thanks to it – many more people now sense and take an interest in the political and economic importance of collaborative production. Today, Wikipedia is the fifth most visited site in the world, and contains articles in 287 languages. And FLOSS (free and open source software) has transformed the software industry and become the benchmark in some of the layers that make the Internet possible. As Benkler predicted, commons-based peer production has grown exponentially, and is now used in fields such as open mapping, crowdfunding, and the production of open hardware, as he found in subsequent studies, including the recentP2Pvalue project in which we collaborated. Beyond its economic impact, commons-based peer production has also made an impression on political institutions such as the European Commission, which recognises the importance of what it has come to call “social innovation”, and has adopted it as the core element of its European strategy until 2020.

The changes that have taken place since 2006 and contributed to supporting Benkler’s arguments are diverse, and include economic, environmental, and technological factors that have favoured the increasing importance of social production. The economic “crisis” of 2008 cast doubt on the dominant neoliberal economic ideology and increased the interest in alternative models; the crisis in the political system and the welfare system fuelled new forms of organisation for the political field but also for covering the needs of large swathes of the population who have been pushed out of the labour market or are no longer covered by social policies; climate change and the need to rethink the sustainability of the production system and reduce the consumption of resources have favoured sharing models, and the spread of new technologies has expanded the sectors of the population who are able to participate in net-based collaborative experiences. Taken as a whole, these macro-processes have favoured the conditions required for new spaces of innovation, and supported the increasing importance of civil society as an actor and as a source of alternative models of organisation other than the prevailing models of the State and the market, as Benkler had already predicted in 2006.

Book cover from "The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest" by Benkler.

Book cover from “The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest” by Benkler. Source: Harvard University.

As a result, the book’s main message has gained validity over time –and in what seems to be a quirk of fate, its Spanish translation arrives precisely at a moment of great social effervescence and demands of support for the commons. And with the passing of the years, the book has also acquired new meanings. Focusing on the importance of the “classic” examples of Wikipedia and FLOSS, as Benkler does in his book, could be the key that could guide us in the current situation, a way of re-channelling the non-commercial corporate developments that are threatening to distort the phenomenon. It is worth noting, for example, that if we look at the list of the 50 most-visited websites in the world – a considerable part of global Internet traffic – Wikipedia is the only site that does not follow a corporate governance model. Against this backdrop, Benkler’s emphasis on FLOSS and Wikipedia take on new meaning: the need to return to these classics in order to reverse the prevalence of corporate models in the development of social production. This could help us, for example, to rethink the governance models of services such as Uber.

The commons in Benkler

Benkler, like other jurists who have gone back to the concept of the commons –such as Lawrence Lessig (although in other aspects there are clear differences between Benkler and the founder of Creative Commons licences) and Carol Rose (and her Comedy of the Commons) – understands the commons in the sense of open access: according to this view, the commons refers to resources that allow people the freedom to use them, without anybody being able to interfere in their ability to access to them, or in the way they use them. This approach, which has mainly been developed by cyber jurists, does not place the emphasis on the conditions of production of a resource, or on the type of human grouping, and instead focuses on the conditions of access for individuals. It revolves around freedom among individuals. This open access view of the commons contrasts with that of Elinor Ostrom – winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences –, whose perspective was based on notion of natural commons. In Ostrom’s view, the commons is a governance model in which individuals in a group can actively participate in defining the rules of interaction in regard to the common resource that they share. Benkler does not argue against Ostrom’s view, but he believes that there is a need to develop a theory of the commons that integrates both approaches, because Ostrom’s view is only applicable to a very small number of cases, and is not sufficiently applicable to the open nature of the digital commons, where it becomes difficult to identify a discrete, stable “subject” on whom governance would fall. Benkler also argues that is more important to focus on relations than on resources: in other words, on the free and open nature of the relational environment, rather than on the (non-excludable and competing) nature of resources, as in Ostrom’s case. Benkler is concerned that by restricting ourselves to Ostrom’s view, we would leave out key resources that form part of the system (from roads and waterways, for example, to the Internet), thus limiting the potential impact of promoting a commons-based framework.

The creation of a networked public sphere

In the second part of his book, Benkler discusses the political implications of the emergence of a new information environment and the creation of a networked public sphere that favours new forms of collective action and a new balance of powers in regard to influencing the political agenda and public policies. Developments in this regard since 2006 appear to prove him right. The emergence of the Arab Spring, the 15-M movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the long list of countries that are part of the recent wave of political mobilisations, as well as the new forms of political “party” organisations such as Syrizia in Greece, various cases in Latin America, and Guanyem and Podemos closer to home, illustrate the insightfulness of his argument. Aside from looking at emergent political mobilisations, in The Wealth of Networks and subsequent works, Benkler has focused on analysing the democratic qualities of the networked public sphere as a space of debate among conventional and non-conventional political actors. More recently, defending the democratic nature of organisations such as Wikileaks, or using case studies such as the mobilisation against the SOPA law (“Ley Sinde” in Spain), Benkler has shown the extent to which a networked public sphere favours a greater plurality of voices and the possibility of the political impact of non-conventional actors. In other words, the empowerment of civil society.

Book cover from the “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate”, by Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts, Rob Faris, Alicia Solow-Niederman i Bruce Etling.

Book cover from the “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate”, by Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts, Rob Faris, Alicia Solow-Niederman i Bruce Etling. Source: Harvard University.

The geopolitics of the Internet

Lastly, Benkler offers an analysis of the political economy of the Internet – including the main development trends – and of the web of geopolitical interests that are trying to influence its governance and future development. And he pays particular attention to the potentiality of technology based on de-centralised models and open spectrums.

Yochai Benkler’s visit to Barcelona on 25 February is a great opportunity to rethink, through his works, the “transition” that we appear to be in the midst of.

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