Yochai Benkler at the Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies Conference

The final presentation at the Feb 7th conference was Yochai Benkler on “Power and Participation in the Networked Public Sphere”.

– – – again, rough summary on the basis of my notes, no guarantees – – –

Benkler started out by suggesting an underlying change of much wider-importance than any particular change in politics or communication–namely the change from an industrial information economy to a networked information economy, a change he has discussed in The Wealth of Networks and elsewhere. The central take-away here is that the latter situation comes with radically decentralized capitalization in terms of human know-how and communication technologies, the most important inputs in most work. To put it bluntly: in the advanced post-industrial democracies, more people will have their brain and a networked laptop tomorrow than had the kinds of tools it took to get things done in an industrial economy yesterday.

He went on to point out that while progress is uneven, we see more and more actual examples of distributed and networked peer-to-peer production of things people previously thought could only be brought about by large and hierarchical organizations. News is an example pertinent to the conference, but an arguably larger and more technologically complicated and challenging example of something produced by peer-to-peer networks is the Apache web server.

He offered a few examples of how similar forms of production have been put to use and even institutionalized through Porkbusters and the Sunlight Foundation, and news gathering sites such as the Huffington Post’s ‘Off the Bus‘ project.

So what does this matter for the public sphere? Benkler suggested that the basic blue print of the mass public that accompanied the industrial information economy is changing as more an more interaction and production can take place outside the market and government institutions that dominated in the past.

He challenged various objections made to the basic idea that whatever its substantial merits and flaws, what he calls the ‘networked public sphere’ is preferable to the mass public–saying that empirical research problematizes ideas such as the ‘babel objection’ (Cass Sunstein and his Republic.com 1.0/2.0), the idea that web speech is somehow inferior chatter, and the idea that power law distributions of links and attention online somehow reduces everything but a few sites to irrelevance (an argument that Matthew Hindman has elaborated in a very impressive manner in his recent book, The Myth of Digital Democracy).

Against these objections, Benkler maintained that while each is on to something important, the odds are good that peer-production online can maintain watchdog roles that some newspapers have historically sometimes fulfilled, and help people to do other things as citizens that newspapers never afforded.

He points as an example of part-market, part-collaborative enterprises with an important impact to smallish online news outlets like Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Townhall.com that each maintain staffs that are much smaller than a newspaper with similar web traffic, but in contrast to the latter seems economically viable in the long run.

He pointed out the notable asymmetries in how far the left and the right have come in embracing and developing these potentials, with the progressives generally being more prominent online, more successful, and more technologically and organizationally advanced and generally in line with the collaborative logics of the net. Benkler is currently doing research with Victoria Stodden on mapping these differences and explaining them, and offered for discussion various hypotheses.

Finally, he returned to the idea that while the commanding heights of the mass public may be withering, there are reasons to believe that the emerging networked alternatives can maintain both the attention backbone, the news gathering and watchdog capacities, and the vigorous debate that a democracy needs to thrive.

– – – more sources – – –

Benkler on open-source economics here (youtube).

And his The Wealth of Networks in a nifty wiki version here.

– – – discussion – – –

to repeat, based on my rough notes, and thus not attributed to individuals, in case I distort and simply arguments, as I undoubtedly will

two central questions dominated the discussion of Benkler’s argument

first, what is the relationship between the practical promise he outlines and the power of entrenched institutions who are often slow and even reluctant to embrace the technology as it has emerged, and rather tries to refashion it in their own image (schools, Hollywood, the mass media, and political organizations spring to mind–it is often insurgents who have led new media innovation in all these areas, against incumbent reticence). Benkler of course deals with precisely this question at length in his book, and quite happily conceded that important resistance exists, and may eventually fundamentally change the dynamics he have identified today. There is a central battle going on here that reaches beyond simply struggles over open software and net neutrality, and suggests two diametrically opposed logics at play, the disaggregating trust of digital technologies (their ‘bittiness’) and the aggregating pull of institutions.

the second question is how well his argument scales, both domestically in the U.S., and in countries that are either smaller (like my native Denmark) or have low internet penetration (like Pakistan, with about 1/100 connected). Are there problems of critical mass, or is it a question of other differences when the potentials he describes through U.S.-examples sometimes seems unfulfilled in other cases? Everybody seemed to agree that this is an area that calls for additional empirical work.


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