Last Friday I had the privilege of being on a Telecommunications Policy Research Conference panel with Yochai Benkler to discuss his new book, “The Wealth of Networks.” If you haven't yet heard, PK will be honoring Benkler, Jessica Litman and the Krikorian Brothers at its IP3 Awards Ceremony on October 19. The book discusses the sea change in markets, individual freedom and in democratic discourse brought about by digital networks and the willingness of individuals to engage in collaborative projects (or “peer production”) with little or no financial incentive. Benkler discusses the political economics that drive these collaborations, and also the policy threats that seek to derail them. I was proud to see Public Knowledge mentioned prominently in the policy chapter.
Despite my reservations about reading long books on topics related to my work, I found the book extremely accessible, and unlike many other books in the field, optimistic about the future of media. That optimism was not unbounded, however. Benkler does not seek to set up the Internet as utopian, but he does argue that compared to the top down, centralized and closed media that we have been subjected to for centuries, the freedom that the Internet provides for everyone to speak and be heard is indeed revolutionary.
Perhaps most interesting are Benkler's responses to certain criticisms of the Internet in Chapter 7 of the book, among them: 1) that giving everyone the opportunity to speak will lead to a “Tower of Babel” problem where everyone can speak but few will be heard, leading to the reemergence of the influence big media; 2) that it will be hard for users to figure out what is true or good content (the “accreditation and relevance problem); and 3) that users will simply gravitate to opinions in which they already believe (this is a fear Cass Sunstein discussed at length in his book Republic.com. Benkler refutes each of these criticisms convincingly, showing how the clustering of sites of common interest are solving the “Tower of Babel” problem, how linking, peer review (through comments or sites like Digg and Video Bomb) and search engines like Google address the accreditation and relevance problem and that while users do tend to gravitate towards what Negroponte called the “Daily Me,” one in six websites link to others with which they disagree. Of course, each one of these criticisms can be made of big media, and there, the individual has no opportunity to be heard without the intervention of gatekeepers.
As if on cue, Salon today published an article about how the netroots have fought the telephone and cable companies on net neutrality, essentially stopping the telecom reform bill in its tracks over this one issue. As a veteran of the losing battle over media ownership in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, I can say with great confidence that without the tools that digital media and digital networks provide, the bill would have been passed months ago. Indeed, big media has barely covered net neutrality (with the exception of Jon Stewart, who hardly qualifies as “big media”), although cable and broadcasting has been saturated with Bell-financed ads on the topic.
To those who are skeptical of Benkler's claims, I'd advise them to talk to a Bell lobbyist or maybe to George Allen, whose “mucacca moment,” delivered to millions courtesy of YouTube, may derail both his Presidential ambitions and his bid for re-election to the Senate. Whatever the shortcomings of digital networks, I'll take them over big media any day.