The Wealth of Networks.

August 4, 2008

The “Wealth of Networks” is the exceptional book by Yochai Benkler, Harvard Law professor and Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Generally speaking, the book claims that information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. This approach makes it interesting to read, providing a fresh look on the relatively recent market transformations.

In his book Benkler makes an attempt to cover the topic of one of the most amazing human inventions – Internet. He focuses on the broad range of informational technologies’ impact on the society in general and on the economic and social aspects of the computer networks in particular. Benkler writes about how social production transforms markets and freedom, unveiling the topics of basic economics of information production and innovation, political, personal and cultural freedom.

Benkler succeeded with an explanation of the most complicate and amazing thing, a large-scale cooperative efforts — peer production of information, knowledge, and culture, typified by the emergence of free and open-source software. He points at the fact that traditional economic principles, historically defined by industrial norms, has failed to explain the emerging and spreading pattern of open production. “The Wealth of Networks” introduces the concept of commons-based peer production driven by the broad range of non-monetary and non-proprietary incentives.

Benkler believes that free software is a crucial instance of commons-based peer production: “It depends on many individuals contributing to a common project, with a variety of motivations, and sharing their respective contributions without any single person or entity asserting rights to exclude either from the contributed components or from the resulting whole”. The most surprising thing over here is that the peer production model can operate on very different scales, from the small, three-person model for simple projects, up to the many thousands of people involved in writing the Linux kernel and the GNU/Linux operating system.

The “Wealth of Networks” investigates what are the social ties that make people network together and explores people’s motivation. It was always amazing to me which incentives drive people to actively contribute their time and efforts into the peer production projects. According to Benkler himself, the increased practical individual autonomy is one of the central ideas going through the entire book. Thus, he uses this fact as a starting point in the process of explaining the efficiency and sustainability of nonproprietary production in the networked information economy and the improvements he describes in both freedom and justice.

In one of the chapters Benkler points that the effects of the Internet on social relations are really complex and are hard to predict. The most of early sociology studies attempts raising the concerns regarding the loosing of social ties and fragmenting of social relations have failed. Benkler describes two main effects to prove his point of view: a thickening of preexisting relations with friends, family, and neighbors, particularly with those who were not easily reachable in the pre-Internet environment and an emergence of greater scope for limited-purpose, loose relationships.

Despite the fact that thickening of the relations is enabled by mediated communications, Benkler considers that Internet usage has a positive effect on social relations. As he states himself, “Human beings, whether connected to the Internet or not, continue to communicate preferentially with people who are geographically proximate than with those who are distant. Nevertheless, people who are connected to the Internet communicate more with people who are geographically distant without decreasing the number of local connections.” However, it looks like the “Wealth of Networks” doesn’t pay too much attention if these local communications are direct or mediated, which is really important for the sake of understanding the social relations and the way Internet impacts them. It’s obvious that people spend less and less time communicating directly (besides mediated communication), face-to-face. Here comes a need for all the “water cooler conversations” we were discussing through the last few classes.

The hard-to-read style is one of the biggest disadvantages of the “Wealth of Networks” book. The overwhelming amount of unnecessary terms contributes a lot to it, and sometimes even buries some of the ideas under the pile of words and you have to read each passage a couple times to figure out what is he writing about. Nevertheless, the book is an irreplaceable source of knowledge about the Internet’s economical and cultural effects on society. The “Wealth of Networks” is an essential reading for all of those looking for a better understanding of ‘the Internet revolution’ and the Internet Age.

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