I trudged through Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks”, his award winning treatise on how social production is transforming societies. Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, writes that mankind is on the cusp of a shift in cultural and personal practices due to the multitude of cheap and easy to use communication tools. At the core of Benkler’s story is the emergence of new information sharing methods in which individuals are able to take an active role in the larger world. The ability to express oneself and participate in content creation allows for greater autonomy and will change the dimensions of freedom on a personal and global scale. Throughout, Benkler does an excellent job of thoroughly organizing his argument and relentlessly makes his point through a series of elaborate examples. His incessant ‘in other words’ and ‘to put it another way’ were effective at educating his audience, yet they made for an exhausting read. However, that is not to say that his argument is not strong or thought provoking. The paradise he describes is an empowered world community that enjoys closer ties and an intellectually elevated populous leading more enriched lives with greater cultural freedom and justice.
“The Wealth of Networks” opens with a description of what we already know: digital communication is reshaping the way individuals and groups interact. However, what may not be as clear is that it is also having a significant impact on the way we (as individuals and groups) function in society. He argues that inexpensive and easy to use tools now available allow more opportunities for self expression resulting in closer ties with family and friends. They also allow us to expand our personal circle by adding layers of looser relationships (with acquaintances and business associates) to our network. Opportunities for self expression have always been around, through op-ed submissions, Christmas letters, etc. but what is so striking about digital communication methods is that communication can be two-way through commenting, linking, and peer to peer reviews. This two-way ability is bringing people closer to each other and more participatory in groups. Additionally, people who aren’t “joiners” can get informed and take action if and when they want. For example, I have yet to attend a neighborhood meeting but I know a ton about what is happening on my block by monitoring the list serve. I am a better informed and feel closer to my neighbors even if I haven’t needed to add meetings to my schedule in order to accomplish this.
To me, probably the most exciting part of Benkler’s puzzle is the potential to have a smarter, more informed populous. Powerful mass media, as he explains, is motivated by the need to drive revenue which is typically gained through advertisers and prices are set by the number of eyeballs broadcasters can deliver. Due to the difficulty and high cost of production, previously, large media outlets had a monopoly on content creation. As a result content creators tended to play it safe and produce “lowest common denominator” entertainment that wouldn’t offend or challenge anyone for fear of losing those eyeballs or the sponsors. This has changed with the digital age. Now small scale production companies and even individuals can be competitive in the media market place or effect change. Meatier, personally valuable content can spur independent thought and, Benkler is hopeful, develop a more reflective society. People can now easily track areas of interest without relying on just the evening news and/or choose to watch smarter entertainment because there are more options.
The ability to keep in touch, collaborate and share opinions are all greatly satisfying but the largest benefit is probably to the disenfranchised and developing countries. Benkler shows that the door is now open for large scale improvements to the human condition in respect to personal and cultural freedom. Previously education, availability of resources, and social standing directed what one would be able to accomplish with their lives. Today, through free and cheap resources, as in MIT offering courses materials for free online, people can self help. They can educate themselves and improve their quality of life and the lives around them through expanded knowledge and skill sets. The ease of sharing and accessing this information at little to no cost has the potential to change the lives of many.
“The Wealth of Networks” is about freedom – the freedom to express oneself, the freedom to participate in a culture, and the freedom to reach your full potential despite social standing and resources. The concepts presented are invigorating but the book itself is dense and confusing. I found that Benkler’s story sometimes got lost in the repetition of ideas and deep dive examples. After reading the text I certainly had a much better understanding of where we are and where we can go but it was a painful reading experience which left me bored instead of inspired. I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone but the intended audience of academia.