Interview with Yochai Benkler

“It’s that new diversity of ways of creating information and exchanging it, that characterizes the Network information economy.”

Markus Beckedahl from speaks with law professor Yochai Benkler about his book “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom” and some of his thoughts on the developments and influences of collaborative work and peer production on the net.

  • Date of recording: Fri, 2006-09-15
  • Language(s) spoken:

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00:00 Welcome to the, my name is Markus Beckedahl and my guest today is Yochai Benkler from the Yale University. He is author of the book “The Wealths of Networks”.

MB: 00:13 Mr. Benkler, what are the Wealths of Networks?

YB: Well, the basic idea is that we’re seeing through digital networks a decentralization of the basic capabilities of producing and exchanging information knowledge and culture.
As a result we’re seeing innovation and economic production of the most advanced kinds; like for example the development of the most sophisticated software being developed in completely new models, decentralized, heavily dependent on social motivation or social structure rather than on markets or on firms or on government firms.

01:10 In addition to the economic effects what we’re seeing as complex modern democracies we have all developed in various forms in the context of mass media.

For the first time we are starting to see what happens to democracy, when several orders of magnitude more people and groups can decide what is important news, cover it, research it, report it and communicate it. When people can mobilize more effectively.

01:49 At a broader level of abstraction when people can participate actively in producing their culture, so that the stories we tell to one another – in text, in video, in audio – about who we are and what life can be like. now come not from a relatively small number of high production value industrial model, producers of culture, but rather in a very decentralised form.
So when I say the wealth of networks a set of technological conditions what I mean to imply has given individuals and groups greater practical capacity and greater authority to make the information environment we occupy both as economic actors and perhaps more importantly as political and social beings.

MB: 02:45 When we see Free Software as an example, there is, it has, we are starting on economic issues.
Free Software is not about communism as lots of people think, it’s about the freedom of networks, the freedom of peer productions.
Is that just the first example, what we see, or – yeah – what does Free Software mean for digital revolution?

YB: 03:19 I think Free Software has provided the first large-scale observable, measurably effective example of the broader phenomenon of peer production. That is to say, if you had asked someone except for the tiny number of people who were in, who are developing Free Software, “Could we develop an Operating system, could we develop servers by just letting anyone who wants to participate and then selecting among those implementations you think were better with no one really exercising full control, and no one really telling you ‘you do this and you do that’?
The answer would have been ‘No’!

*If you had asked in 2001, what happens if someone puts on the web a thousand little snippets of articles, and puts them on the interface that allows anyone, without logging in, without saying to edit what they want. 5 years later you come up with an encyclopedia that may not be the best in the world but is plausibly competing with Britannica [] much less any of the other commercial encyclopedias, you would have been called crazy.
*And so Free Software is

  • because of the relatively early practice
  • because of the older traditions of software development from before the eighties.
  • because of the measurable productivity.

has[!] offered a very strong existence proof and has also offered an idiom or a metaphor for everything else [?] that the people can begin phenomenon that feels very different from traditional industrial capitalist production. And at the same time is very different from anything like communism, no matter what words are thrown. Communism – just like industrial capitalism – is a product of industrial economy.
When you are in a network information economy, when the means of production don’t mean a very large plant [?] owned by the party. But they mean the computer, the video phone, the camera that you, that anybody owns. You’re not talking about a form of collectivism, you’re talking about a form of individual freedom.

05:55 And when people have greater individual freedom, they do all sort of things: Sometimes they go out and try to make money. Sometimes they try to go out and try to be nice to people. Sometimes they go and do things for themselves and for their own pleasure. It’s that new diversity of ways of creating information and exchanging it, that characterizes the Network information economy. It’s the interface between market and non-market, between the individual and collaborative, that is central to what is new and special about this new environment.

MB: A common opinion is that people say you can’t compare software development to cultural production or cultural development like music or films. What’s your opinion about? 

YB: *Well, I think, in some senses you can, in some senses you can’t. Different cultural forms have different characteristics. They are more or less amenable to being structured in ways that make it feasible or not feasible for people do it in their spare time or without requiring payment.

I think music, for example is an example where the coherence of a piece – short or long – makes it quite difficult to have it be produced by a very large number of people each contributing a very small amount. And so it becomes much more important to understand how artists can live from their art.
The answer there has largely been, that artist live the way they’ve lived mostly under the recording industry, which is, they perform. They starve sometimes. But rarely, rarely do musicians live from CD sales. And what I think we will see is a reemergence, less of a star culture, which is a function of the economics of stamping records where if you have a million records is not that much more expensive that a thousand [aeh] not a hundredthousand thousand copy. {Well, I should get rid of that}
08:55 Films are again a different story. If you understand the medium of film to be the Hollywood-Blockbuster. That won’t likely be produced in a distributed form. If you understand film to be visually stimulating engaging evocative cultural narrative, then first of all we already see Massively Multiplayer online games become a platform for doing just that, but in a distributed form, active rather than passive.
We see Youtube, or if you want to go even on Google Video or wherever, where people are making smaller chunks that they can and the output is not a single coherent high production value Hollywood narrative – it’s a prestige. It’s very different.
Do we like it, do we not like it?
Who’s we? People who are used people who are getting used, generations that are getting used to this kind of making visual stimuli and telling stories visually for each other.
The cultural form will have to change. Have we given up on books because of TV? Have we given up on newspapers because of radio?
These things won’t disappear. Their relative cultural salience will change.

MB: 10:16 And what will be changed in politics from a peer-production perspective?

YB: 10:25 I think, this is [pause] this is a promising area.
One has to be a little cautious, because we all remember from the early nineties the utopia, everyone a pamphleteer “We going to have some wonderful democracy”. And that didn’t happen.
And we, some of us at least, who have looked at this, have read all of the cynicism and the skepticism of the late nineties.
You get fragmentation, you get a very polarized policy.
The answer isn’t so much in the middle. It’s a little closer to the democratic utopia. But it’s taking time to occur. And I think today as we look empirically at the way that people are in fact using the net, I think what we see is that not everyone is a pamphleteer. But it is vastly easier to have your voice heard.
Perhaps these single, I take[?] the two most important developments in this sphere are that the way the blogosphere and the web are structured, in order to be heard you need to be interesting, intensely interesting to a dedicated group that links to each other and sees each other, rather than being moderately interesting to millions of people. That’s the major inversion in broadcasts that things that matter. […] things that intensely interesting to more or less cohesive, interest or subject groups. Where is today in the net what happens is, if somebody’s very interesting or considered high value within a group that’s relatively closely affiliated through blogs, through mailing lists, these things tend to rise in the group, then they get perceived by other looser affiliated so interested in him and one part although all of a political blogosphere, they are suddenly be seen in the other part and that’s an inversion of where energies come from.

13:00 And the second thing that I think is happening people usually treat, people usually think of loss of credibility, loss of the authorotative voice of the national TV network as a failure. I find the loss of faith in what anyone says to be a deeply democratic and critical development. I think where as people begin to read – not searching for authority, but always reading so as to make provisional judgments about “well this person says this. What’s their credibility”? Let me read three or four or seven other sources way their credibility and engage in what I understand as research, in what an intelligence agency might understand as intelligence gathering but always in the mode of the user collecting their own sense of the world through a series of critical readings rather than looking for the one or two or three authoritative voices that integrate the ability to produce and communicate with the social authority to say what is true and important. 

MB14:18 So. This is a development, which is good for democratic society, I think. But are there dangers farm suspect there are much more chances for people to have a voice and to be heard in the networks?

YB:* Well, I do think that it’s good for democratic societies. I think you ask is dangerous easy been serious that people have more of an opportunity to be heard. I think there are genuine policing challenges that come from the ease, with which relatively disbursed, destructive groups of various sorts and different societies have their own definition of what’s a destructive group __ to cooperate and act.
I think when you’re talking about these effects in dictatorial societies you call them democracy movements. And you’ll find them attractive. When you talk about the menace citing a largely speaking in civic considered legitimate, you talk about them as threats.
15:40 I think it’s important not to confuse between the increased complexity of a policing action against antisocial or threatening behavior and a critique of the democratic potential of the medium. Because as long as however unpleasant the message or the, or the conversation, that previously was suppressed and somehow in back rooms and now is more visible as long as it isn’t converted into action I still consider that to be an improvement for democracy rather than suppression of these ideas. Which is why I think of it as a policing problem constraining the transition from thought and, […] speech for action. And I know his authority American thinking about it, but I do, what can I say. As long as that’s the line that needs to be constrained, I still see even those things that we today see as threatening as fundamentally consistent with improved democracy.

MB: 16:56 A last question before we have to come to an end – you released your book, which is very nice to read even in English for me as a German reader under a Creative Commons license. Why did you choose that license and what are your experiences with it?

YB: On a personal level I chose the license because I think one needs to have some integrity betweens one’s actions and one’s words.
And so for me as I was, as it was thinking of which press to go affecting the oil prices would expire in and do this from specters of Wilmington press sizing set the date has a, as a challenge and opportunity to see what the future of the academic press is. Which is the other thing!

The major reason I think to do it is to experiment with the academic press can shift from being a poor version of the traditional commercial presses to a genuine platform for conversation and eductation, which is why I also didn’t want to just put it out there available for download but to invade it in a wiki so that people could annotate, offer comments, update research use it with their students seems to collect case studies and connect current case studies with the book which overtime very quickly I presume will become old in its details rather than the overall structure.
And so I see this very much as an experiment with how academia which is very much an old organizational model, built to deal with the quirkiness of information and knowledge in an old environment can begin to leverage the capabilities of social production and the networked a permanent work environment to become a more affective [ah] teaching tool and a more effective participant in conversation and civil society.

MB: OK Mr. Benkler, thank you very much!

YB: My pleasure!