The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom is a thought-provoking read. Author Yochai Benkler, Harvard professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, does justice to the complexity of social production by adding dimension to a subject often simply categorized as just the Internet. His involved discussion about the networked information economy is not for the casual reader. Rather, his book is intended for deeper reflection. Change in our non-rival “information revolution” is “deep,” as Benkler opens with. The length of his book serves to prove how deep it really is. Within this book he discusses the effects of the Internet on society, which links nicely to his TED talk referring to the Internet as a permanent change, not a fashionable trend.
Benkler’s complex writing style ironically mirrors how multifaceted media are and his connection to social change is fascinating. Emphasizing key concepts like networked information economy and nonmarket, his book is neatly divided into three sections: The Networked Information Economy, The Political Economy of Property and Commons, and Policies of Freedom at a Moment of Transformation. Within the first section of the book, Benkler focuses on his observations of economics and the information economy. He introduces one of the key terms he refers to continually, the networked information economy. The deepening trend he talks about is put in motion by a ripple effect of advancing technology. This trend is put to the test in the second part of his book by explaining how these changes are affecting social interactions and culture. Part three talks about polices regarding this area and touches on the layers of regulation of digital information. These layers make us to look at how regulation affects the free flow of communication and information.
People engage in communication to “understand themselves in the world,” (p 291) as Benkler discusses in chapter eight. This is very true, but we do this unconsciously. According to him, culture is one of the key “inputs into human welfare,” (p 302) along with knowledge and information. Despite all the jewels advancing technology gives us, the ability to understand ourselves and connect with each other is priceless. Even in the most desperate of situations communication is a valuable part of culture. For example, Africa is leading the world in cell phone adoption. According to a New York Times article, Africa is “the fastest-growing mobile phone market worldwide…organizations are eagerly seizing the opportunity presented by such growth.”
Benkler emphasizes this desire in growth with case studies like Wikipedia, “the emergence of a substantial nonmarket alternative path for cultural conversation increases the degrees of freedom available to individuals and groups to engage in cultural production…doing so increases the transparency of culture to its inhabitants,” (p 293). This nonmarket social production defines our culture because we (consumers) make it what we want, therefore influencing major market producers. Products that cost money, like Microsoft Encarta lost market share due to the popularity and accuracy of Wikipedia. Unmonitored content production is changing the way we digest information.
Cultural artifacts can now be accessed, viewed and shared in a way only dreamed of in early episodes of Star Trek. Generally these artifacts have always been around, but today we can digest them more efficiently. Why is this important? According to Benkler this is because the networked information economy makes culture more transparent and malleable. It is important to remember that what we consume helps us understand culture, and this book allows the readers to understand that our inclusion in this commons-based peer production is nontransferable, a trait that is new in this century. Charles Vests reviews how the Internet is changing education in his article Pen Content and the Emerging Global Meta-University. In the article he talks about the notion of providing educational content freely online, thus launching the MIT OpenCourseWare program. This shift to open content has impacted culture caused others besides students to benefit from this venture, including people outside of the United States.
The view Benkler has on how the role of social production molds our culture makes this book worth the read. Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you start reading this book. The Wealth of Networks is great for students in the MDCM program because it has so much information it allows readers to sift through and really identify with a handful of the numerous concepts he discusses. The Internet is the first form of wide spread effective communication that is decentralized and thrives on individual participation and creation, I urge you to see the reason why in Benkler’s book.