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The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

Yochai Benkler
Published by Yale University Press
ISBN:0-300-11056-1
512 pages
£ 25.00
Published: 26th May 2006
reviewed by Paul Miller
   in the December 2006 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

Through boom, bust and boom again, books about the internet tend to fall into two traps. They either fly into hyperbole about how a new online gizmo or company is the next big thing or they tell us to be afraid, very afraid, and lock up our children's keyboards, lest innocents be sucked into an evil vortex of sex and gaming.

Yochai Benkler, a Yale law professor, doesn't fall into either trap with his ambitious attempt to understand how the internet is changing society. What Benkler sees is an emerging pattern in the way we use network technologies which he thinks is positive for democracy and innovation, but not without its downsides. He argues that the internet is making obvious an existing form of exchange -- social sharing -- and taking it from the periphery to the mainstream of the economy. Conventional economics can't explain why volunteer-generated projects such as Wikipedia or open-source software, which are given away for free, have been so successful. He proposes his own theory of ``social production'' -- ``commons-based peer production'' -- to fill the gap.

It's a counterpoint to the received wisdom that creating and exploiting intellectual property (patents and copyright) is the only way to do business in the 21st century. He points out that in 2003 IBM made twice as much money from providing open-source services as it did from intellectual property -- despite the fact that between 1999 and 2004 it created more patents than any other US company. Benkler proposes that this is a pattern we will see repeated. The thesis is unsettling for those businesses, particularly entertainment ones, that have relied on controlling distribution of copyrighted material. He says not that they will disappear overnight but that social production is more than a fad. It is no surprise to Benkler that: ``We find ourselves in the midst of a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment.''

Benkler considers the emerging detail of these battles for the legal framework of the internet that could skew the governance of creativity. He finds it contemptible that, if current trends continue, the works of Elvis and Disney will never enter the public domain in the same way as Mozart or Shakespeare.

The book draws on a staggering array of disciplines: from graph theory to economics, law to political science. But Benkler's breadth is not at the expense of depth. The book is all the more convincing because of the legal precision with which he treats examples, from the ``Barbie'' entry on Wikipedia to the scandal over Diebold voting machines in the US. He never falls for easy, superficial conclusions.

His writing is clear and readable, although occasionally the technical subject matter makes it hard work. Keeping it as light as he does is a remarkable feat for a heavyweight piece of work.

There is, of course, something perverse about the fact that perhaps the best work yet about the fast-moving, enthusiast-driven internet has taken an academic 10 years to write and is printed on 528 pages of dead tree. But perhaps the interesting social production happens post-publication. The book is released under a Creative Commons licence so you can download it free from his website (www.benkler.org) and Benkler has given readers all manner of collaborative tools to discuss the book and take the ideas forward. You'll want a hard copy to thumb through, though. This is an important book.

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