The Wealth of Networks – With Yochai Benkler

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Yochai Benkler has a thought. He has many, really. But the central thought stems from the very simple fact that you and I find ourselves online with a growing host of communicative and collaborative tools at our disposal.

“Every connected person on the planet — somewhere like a billion people — now has the physical capital necessary to make and communicate information, knowledge, and culture.”

This is what Yochai says, and if you think blogs or Flickr or or YouTube or Wikis and especially Wikipedia, you begin to get a sense of what he means by ordinary connected folk having the “physical capital necessary.”

This physical capital is simply a modem and a computer. Have that, and you can participate. Now contrast that very low barrier to entry with what is needed to start a television or radio station or to publish a magazine or newspaper.

On the face of it, the concept is relatively pedestrian. People have spoken about the democratizing Internet revolution since the earliest days of the Web.

However, Benkler digs deeper and considers the economic, legal, and political ramifications of what happens when there is no intermediary preventing your voice, your code, your video, your pictures, or your ideas from riffing on, mashing up, making heads, tails or doing it the other way around.

And if we look around, we see new economies mushrooming left and right. Less than a decade ago, some Stanford grad students figured out an algorithm to improve search. They called their company Google and now employ over 10,000. In 2006 they bought a video-sharing company that was founded in 2005. Purchase price: $1.65 billion.

In 1992, an open-source operating system with a funny name was completed. The underlying source code for Linux was and is available for anyone to use, modify, and freely redistribute. By the late ’90s, IBM and Hewlett-Packard were among just some of the many corporations giving it support. By the early 2000s, a quarter of all servers were running Linux rather than proprietary systems. Spain, Brazil, and China are just some of many governments that have adopted the platform throughout government agencies.

Individuals and collectives band together throughout the blogosphere and uncover half-truths, distortions, and lies. All they need is a free blog account to do so.

This networked world is destructive to the previous gatekeepers of information, culture, and proprietary systems. When Brazil has 20,000 Linux desktops (and counting), that’s 20,000 fewer Microsoft licenses. Such destruction can be spun positively, and Benkler’s positive spin is found in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

Published in 2006, The Wealth of Networks builds on Benkler’s previous ideas about the transformative effects of networked environments.

At root is something he calls “commons-based peer production,” the effects of which are overturning culture, politics, and knowledge.

The “commons” can be considered a social sphere: it brings groups together to create and build. It leverages these groups to create something entirely new. And it allows for new people and new groups to build on its output.

The commons is also a legal attitude based on Stanford’s Lawrence Lessig and his work with Creative Commons, a non-profit that provides a way to expand the range and number of creative works available in the public sphere for others to legally build upon and share.

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In the video above, Benkler explores how legal and social forces are creating and intertwining with economic forces and what this might all mean for democratic societies.