Review: Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0300110562
Yochai Benkler’s book is outstanding in quality, delivery and breadth. Some of the books ideas may not be new to the reader, having been previously introduced through his many published scholarly articles, from his podium at either Yale or Harvard Law School or various lecture tours. Interdisciplinary in content, international in scope, and philosophic in tone, he has skillfully woven history of law, economics, nations, markets and societal development into this careful treatise of today’s networked information economy, Wealth of Networks.
He begins by telling us how information, knowledge and cultural patterns are changing due to less restricted information channel access over the web. Through removal of capital constraints and reduced capital investment the means of production have been placed into the hands of every person. Creative individuals are able to reach like-minded peers, forming networks capable of rivaling hierarchical, market based organizations in improved efficiency and elegance of final product.
A good portion of the book covers the benefits of encouraging this alternative peer to peer, non-market economy. Once the motivation of development has moved from monetary desires of an organization to individual interests combined with project involvement based on meritocratic respect, the resulting efficiency of project process he describes is fascinating. Amazingly the easier, more efficient avenues are pursued and more elegant solutions arrived at. Projects based on volunteer effort simply do not suffer wasting time on misdirection or less rewarding courses.
Warnings follow of potential threats to growth and innovation; such as how the law distinguishes between public and private goods, and recent legal interpretations broaden to fence in digital rangeland. We hear of how this application of private property law benefiting the market territory of a few has infringed upon the rights of many non-market participants, with the potential result of stifling human development and societal growth. It is suggested, with many excellent examples that government should redirect its efforts and limit interventions to a few useful areas such as; funding neutral broadband networks, financing basic research and regulating against digital environment monopolies.
In mass media, a monopoly example pertinent to our coursework, he takes the history of media distribution dialogue across different nations assisting the American reader to consider alternatives to our existing format. (A fine lesson on how we came to be fed the nationally broadcasted mind mush.) Particularly illuminating is the hitherto general complacency and acceptance of provided media output as “finished goods” rather than a phrase in an ongoing dialogue, as we are now beginning to experience through blogged online perspectives.
Once we are swept beyond our borders and limiting perspectives, Mr. Benkler transports the reader out into a world of humanitarian problems. Applying his earlier concepts here, he provides potential solutions achievable by the spread of this inexpensive knowledge conduit and the free open source information society as infrastructure foundations for global improvement. Along the way, he addresses concerns about human development such as whether our relational ties are being strengthened or weakened. As optimistic as Mr. Anderson, Mr. Benkler differs in his deeper consideration of the harder issues and more comprehensive documentation, and is ultimately more persuasive in most areas. Disappointingly, some topics listed under Justice and Development towed the popular perspective bias rather than his usual reasoned argument. One could argue that he may have stretched his thesis application a bit far at this point, though I agree that human freedom and societal development can be improved globally through a networked, open sourced information web.
His clear, insightful examination of networked, influenced economic issues easily persuades the reader to envision a future of increased personal autonomy, and self-sufficiency once freed from our previously limited, commercially influenced mass media middleman businesses. Wealth of Networks provides a convincing line of reasoning for the reduction of protectionist regulation and maintaining an open information network as a conduit for solving world problems. One is inspired to read further, exploring his references for additional reading material to continue the dialogues he has introduced. A very inspiring and thought provoking book, I highly recommend it.