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?