Benkler on Social Production

Harvard University professor of law, Yochai Benkler, examines the economics of non-market digital production.

Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done. For more than 150 years, modern complex democracies have depended in large measure on an industrial information economy for these basic functions. In the past decade and a half, we have begun to see a radical change in the organization of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment we occupy as autonomous individuals, citizens, and members of cultural and social groups. It seems possible today to speak of “the Internet revolution.” In some academic circles, it is positively naive. But it should not be. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.

A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. These changes have increased the role of nonmarket and non-proprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations. These newly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games. Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.

The rise of greater scope for individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture, however, threatens the incumbents of the industrial information economy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in the midst of a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment. A wide range of laws and institutions from broad areas like telecommunications, copyright, or international trade regulation, to minutiae like the rules for registering domain names or whether digital television receivers will be required by law to recognize a particular code—are being tugged and warped in efforts to tilt the playing field toward one way of doing things or the other. How these battles turn out over the next decade or so will likely have a significant effect on how we come to know what is going on in the world we occupy, and to what extent and in what forms we will be able-as autonomous individuals, as citizens, and as participants in cultures and communities-to affect how we and others see the world as it is and as it might be.

The most advanced economies in the world today have made two parallel shifts that, paradoxically, make possible a significant attenuation of the limitations that market-based production places on the pursuit of the political values central to liberal societies. The first move, in the making for more than a century, is to an economy cantered on information (financial services, accounting, software, science) and cultural (films, music) production, and the manipulation of symbols (from making sneakers to branding them and manufacturing the cultural significance of the Swoosh). The second is the move to a communications environment built on cheap processors with high computation capabilities, interconnected in a pervasive network—the phenomenon we associate with the Internet. It is this second shift that allows for an increasing role for nonmarket production in the information and cultural production sector, organized in a radically more decentralized pattern than was true of this sector in the twentieth century. The first shift means that these new patterns of production-nonmarket and radically decentralized-will emerge, if permitted, at the core, rather than the periphery of the most advanced economies. It promises to enable social production and exchange to play a much larger role, alongside property and market based production, than they ever have in modern democracies. …

[My] overarching claim is that we are seeing the emergence of a new stage in the information economy, which I call the “networked information economy.” It is displacing the industrial information economy that typified information production from about the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. What characterizes the networked information economy is that decentralized individual action—specifically, new and important cooperative and coordinate action carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies-plays a much greater role than it did, or could have, in the industrial information economy. The catalyst for this change is the happenstance of the fabrication technology of computation, and its ripple effects throughout the technologies of communication and storage. The declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population … .

The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. … Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.

I begin, therefore, with an analysis of the effects of networked information economy on individual autonomy. First, individuals can do more for themselves independently of the permission or cooperation of others. They can create their own expressions, and they can seek out the information they need, with substantially less dependence on the commercial mass media of the twentieth century. Second, and no less importantly, individuals can do more in loose affiliation with others, rather than requiring stable, long-term relations, like co-worker relations or participation in formal organizations, to underwrite effective cooperation. Very few individuals living in the industrial information economy could, in any realistic sense, decide to build a new Library of Alexandria of global reach, or to start an encyclopedia. As collaboration among far-flung individuals becomes more common, the idea of doing things that require cooperation with others becomes much more attainable, and the range of projects individuals can choose as their own therefore qualitatively increases. The very fluidity and low commitment required of any given cooperative relationship increases the range and diversity of cooperative relations people can enter, and therefore of collaborative projects they can conceive of as open to them.

These ways in which autonomy is enhanced require a fairly substantive and rich conception of autonomy as a practical lived experience, rather than the formal conception preferred by many who think of autonomy as a philosophical concept. But even from a narrower perspective, which spans a broader range of conceptions of autonomy, at a minimum we can say that individuals are less susceptible to manipulation by a legally defined class of others—the owners of communications infrastructure and media. The networked information economy provides varied alternative platforms for communication, so that it moderates the power of the traditional mass-media model, where ownership of the means of communication enables an owner to select what others view, and thereby to affect their perceptions of what they can and cannot do. Moreover, 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. …

We are in the midst of a quite basic transformation in how we perceive the world around us, and how we act, alone and in concert with others, to shape our own understanding of the world we occupy and that of others with whom we share it. Patterns of social practice, long suppressed as economic activities in the context of industrial economy, have now emerged to greater importance than they have had in a century and a half. With them, they bring the possibility of genuine gains in the very core of liberal commitments, in both advanced economies and around the globe. The rise of commons-based information production, of individuals and loose associations producing information in non-proprietary forms, presents a genuine discontinuity from the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. It brings with it great promise, and great uncertainty. …

We have an opportunity to change the way we create and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. By doing so, we can make the twenty first century one that offers individuals greater autonomy, political communities greater democracy, and societies greater opportunities for cultural self-reflection and human connection. We can remove some of the transactional barriers to material opportunity, and improve the state of human development everywhere. Perhaps these changes will be the foundation of a true transformation toward more liberal and egalitarian societies. Perhaps they will merely improve, in well-defined but smaller ways, human life along each of these dimensions. That alone is more than enough to justify an embrace of the networked information economy by anyone who values human welfare, development, and freedom.


Yochai Benkler (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, pp.1-3, 8-9, 472-473. || Amazon || WorldCat


Previous || Chapter 1: Directory || Next