Social philosopher Yochai Benkler helps us see into the future of the digital commons

Talking with Yochai Benkler, you get the impression that he was born a little too late for his philosophical biases—at times he sounds like the kibbutznik he once was—but just in time for the social media revolution. His talk, like his new book, The Wealth of Networks (Yale), is sprinkled with the idioms of what might be called capitalist collectivism, and have become de rigueur for the motley crew of philosophers, technophiles, and venture capitalists pursuing new technologies, such as Wikipedia and Flickr, which rely on user participation as the engine of content creation.

Indeed, Benkler, a faculty member at Yale Law, is the closest thing Web 2.0 has to a court philosopher. At the core of his work is the perception that the moorings of social life—our economics, politics, work, and technology—have become dramatically decentralized as a result of the Internet, and that our fundamental perceptions of human altruism and selfishness have come into play in the new digital ecology. It sounds like the old Internet saw that “information wants to be free,” but Benkler has a more serious intent.

“For the first time since the industrial revolution,” he says, “large chunks of the world’s population have access to all they need—not just physical capital, but the most advanced outputs of the new economy: Open Source software, Wikipedia, Multiple User Games, new practices that are replacing and competing with the state and reorienting market opportunities for companies that provide goods and services.”

In this new economy, says Benkler, the very nature of who is a producer and who is a consumer becomes blurred. Take Open Source web servers. “In 1995, Microsoft pursued a traditional development path,” says Benkler, “but a small group of engineers decided to make one themselves, patch it up, and put it out there. No one got paid, but a social system started to contribute, and decisions about what needed to be done got made on a distributed basis. Over time, Apache came to dominate the market in the mission critical software.” Similarly, the Wikipedia came to challenge the supremacy of mainstream knowledge products such as Encylopedia Brittanica based solely on the efforts of the user community that writes and edits each entry without pay.

It sounds idyllic but Benkler says it’s not just idealism behind this wave of decentralized learning. Xerox’s Eureka project let techs in the field write their own repair manuals, and in so doing says Benkler, turned “the machine into a participant in the lifecycle of the machine and its techs.” The same thing will happen to consumers—and soon too. “Instead of seeing the product as clean and finished, it will become part of a cycle of relationships between manufacturer and consumer.” Good news indeed for companies who see their products as the beginning of a dialogue about their needs.—Craig Bromberg



“...large chunks of the world’s population have access to all they need—not just physical capital, but the most advanced outputs of the new economy...