On The Wealth of Networks: Eavesdropping on the Benkler World Tour

I love Chicago, but sometimes I have to acknowledge that living on the East Coast has its advantages. In the last few days, Dave Weinberger, Jesse Wilbur and John Palfrey have each heard Yochai Benkler discuss his the newly released The Wealth of Networks. (The book is available as a PDF and in paper— and Luyu has created a “preliminary” HTML version.)

Wilbur’s notes:

We are, he says, in a transitional period, during which we have the opportunity to shape our information culture and policies, and thereby the future of our society. From the introduction:

This book is offered, then, as a challenge to contemporary legal democracies. We are in the midst of a technological, economic and organizational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice, and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will in some significant measure depend on policy choices that we make over the next decade or so. To be able to understand these choices, to be able to make them well, we must recognize that they are part of what is fundamentally a social and political choice—a choice about how to be free, equal, productive human beings under a new set of technological and economic conditions.

(Siting Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Wilbur adds some thoughts on the challenges posed by collaborative text:

Yes, you can download the pdf, but the texts are in essentially the same environment—yet they are not together. This is one of the things we were trying to overcome with the Gamer Theory design. This separation highlights a larger issue, and one that we are preoccupied with at the institute: how can we shape technology to allow us handle text collaboratively and socially, yet still maintain an author’s unique voice?

)

Weinberger’s notes:

There are new opportunities, he says, most importantly shifting from finished information and cultural goods to platforms for self-expression and collaboration. Social production is a fact, not a fad. It is “the critical long term shift caused by the Internet.” But it is a threat to, and threatened by, incumbent business models.

And Palfrey’s:

– There is no major democratic state that doesn’t post-date the rise of mass media. What does democracy look like when we introduce social production? Pentagon Paper is an early and important example. Diebold is a new one, in the lead-up to the 2004 election is another, with Bev Harris and her distributed friends. (Read the book!)

As Yochai has yet to make it to Chicago, I have only the book (and wiki) to work from. An excerpt I chose, on social effects of a networked culture:

Individuals are less susceptible to manipulation by a legally defined class of others- the owners of communications infrastructure and media…The diversity of perspectives on the way the world is and the way it could be for any given individual is qualitatively increased. This gives individuals a significantly greater role in authoring their own lives, by enabling them to perceive a broader range of possibilities, and by providing them a richer baseline against which to measure the choices they in fact make.

And heady praise from Lessig:

This is — by far — the most important and powerful book written in the fields that matter most to me in the last ten years. If there is one book you read this year, it should be this…Read it. Understand it. You are not serious about these issues — on either side of these debates — unless you have read this book.

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