Benkler: Economies of Information


The Wealth of Networks provides a detailed, complex and historically situated analysis of the shifting nature of the information-knowledge economy. Benkler’s main claim is that we are moving away from an industrial information economy characterized by the material and socio-political conditions of a capitalist model of information production and towards a networked information economy. While the former is hegemonic and homogenous, the latter is characterized by what Benkler calls “radical decentralization”. He explains that our digital ecology is shaped by “new and important cooperative and coordinated action carried out through radically distributed, non-market mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies.” (3) Effectively, the material conditions (cheap computers etc) and socio-political practices (peer to peer sharing of ideas, knowledge, cultural artifacts etc) of the internet produce a vastly different ecology of how information is produced, re-produced, distributed and shared. The symbiotic relationship between the technologies of the internet and the practices surrounding it have shaped a new economy of information and knowledge that complicates, resists and sometimes subverts social, cultural and political production.

In the chapter “Cultural Freedom: A Culture Both Plastic and Critical” Benkler goes on to  map out the role of culture in the networked information economy, and its effect on shaping the new public sphere. He makes the claim that culture is fluid, intangible and evolving, constantly re-defining and negotiating power, legitimacy and social relations. However, it does so within particular structural (techno-social-political) parameters. Benkler argues that these largely include information technologies, and in particular the political economy in which knowledge is produced and disseminated. From the printing press to newscasting, broadcast technology has determined the terms and shape in which the masses interacted with information. The culture surrounding that interaction was based on a one-to-many model of information dissemination. The internet has changed the very shape and structure of that interaction. Power, legitimacy and social relations are fundamentally changed in a networked information economy. Benkler locates the shift within and through cultural production that emerges out of the material and socio-political conditions of information technologies. In other words, looking at how culture works is an important avenue to understanding the effects and changes that the internet has had on society:

“Cultural freedom occupies a position that relates to both political freedom and individual autonomy, but is synonymous with neither. The root of it is that none of us exist outside of culture. As individuals and as political actors, we understand the world we occupy, evaluate it, and act in it from within a set of understandings and frames of meaning and reference that we share with others…How those frames of meaning are shaped and and by whom become central component so the structure of freedom for those individuals and societies that inhabit it and are inhabited by it.” (274)

As such the radically decentralized networks present themselves as a new way of negotiating identity and politics (and identity politics) outside of the industrial information economy that imposes a particular logic and order on our social worlds. Rather, an alternative space is carved out where citizens have the capacity to be active participants in the co-construction of a society based in democratic principles (if not Democracy itself). The networked society enables people to be participants in the changing frames of meanings and reference that mediate the terms by which we live and interact.

Provocation: What role do we have as educators in deploying (educational)technologies in the classroom that better resemble the networked information economy as opposed to the industrial information economy? What role do platforms such as Blackboard or CUNY Commons play in this schema?

Provocation: Do you think that Benkler oversimplifies the split between these two economies? Doesn’t broadcast media still play a fundamental role in what information is gathered and distributed? Can we operate our information world simply through networks?

4 thoughts on “Benkler: Economies of Information

  1. Achim Koh

    Thanks for the nice summary and provocations!

    One use I can think of for the these tools is facilitating participation. Personally I feel more comfortable engaging in online discussions than in a real time discussion. The extended time-space allows for a prolonged access to be part of the discourse—which is a possibility I usually associate with these technologies. The other side of the story is that I find myself questioning whether I am deviating from speaking IRL which I would have otherwise done, because I know I can come back and try to write something online. And then there is the extra burden that an additional platform might bring in a traditional class structure, which I think we mentioned while discussing pedagogy.

    So, while these are more reflection points which your post reminded me of than concrete answers related to education using digital technologies, this quote from Thomas Streeter might be helpful to one trying to articulate answers:

    “The technology of the internet is not inherently democratic, but interesting and rich experiments in how to do democracy have happened so frequently on the internet that we have come to expect them there and have been building that expectation into its legal regulation and underlying code base to the extent that it is now a tradition.” (186-187)

    Streeter, Thomas. The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet. New York: NYU Press, 2010. Print.

    1. Sara Vogel

      Achim — thanks for noting the quote from Streeter and relating it to the idea of how online platforms open up different kinds of spaces for participation. The general sentiment of that quote reminds me of this one from Benkler, who refers more to economy than political arrangement, but gets at a similar idea:

      “in the realm of computation and communications… advanced economies have coalesced to make non market individual and social action the most important domain of action in the furtherance of the core liberal commitments”

      Up until this week, I would have probably told you there were more market actions (eBay, Amazon, etc) than nonmarket actions associated with the networked info economy… now I’m not so sure.

  2. Sakina Laksimi Morrow Post author

    Robert, I totally agree that we should be leveraging the tools of the time to allow students the space and tools to express themselves, do research, produce work/knowledge, and share that with others. I am still grappling with that because I am not entirely sure how to deploy these technologies past the archival/presentation purpose (ie. write your stuff on this platform as opposed to handing in a paper). This neither changes the structure of their work nor their level of engagement. Digitizing is not enough if there isn’t a clear understanding behind what that new medium has to offer in shaping their work and how they approach scholarship. I don’t even know how blogging is different that writing a short reflection paper (except perhaps that there is an awareness that others can read your work). That doesn’t mean that there is nothing there, just that I have not figured it out yet how to do this in a way that is meaningful, effective and responsive.

  3. Robert Robinson

    Sakina, Wow! Thank you very much for laying this out so clearly. I would like to respond to both prompts, but in the interest of time, I will stick to the first.

    As educators, I think we should use the tools of our time to interact with information across times. I am reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resaurtus (1833). While the novel is controversial for a number of reasons, I will credit the main character, the editor, for driving home the point that each generation should be clad in the attire most appropriate for its time. I would like to extend this statement to teachers of this age. In order to teach in the present, we must adopt platforms that suit our now. While I would caution against Blackboard for its bulkiness, I do embrace platforms like the Commons and Blogger. Students should be able to exercise their voice in more than one medium, and teachers of this age should encourage multi-vocality through prompts that require reading, writing, and conversing across online spaces and face-to-face environments–much like we do weekly here. Tools and practices of this sort provide cognitive reinforcement, so that we have a greater chance of retaining concepts and tracing them across contexts.


    Carlyle, T. (1871). Thomas Carlyle’s works (People’s ed.). London: Chapman and Hall.

    Which Cambridge May Ball Are You? (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2015, from http://www.sartor-resartus.co.uk/blogs/journal/9292339-story-behind-the-name

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