Saturday, September 30, 2006

TPRC: Benkler speaks

Yochai Benkler, Yale: I would recommend not relying on a mildly obscene caricature in lieu of reading the actual book.

The cost of starting a daily newspaper in constant dollars has shot up over the century, which bifurcated us into producers and consumers. But now costs are changing in a different way. In raw teraflops, SETI@home dwarfs single supercomputers – though both are well above where they were two years ago. The result is a radical decentralization of capitalism: 600 million people have the physical capacity to communicate on the internet. Inputs into core economic activity are widely distributed in industrialized nations for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

Peer production involves large-scale collaboration without price signals or in-firm direction. Peer production behaviors have always been there, but they’ve changed salience. You still can’t produce with your friends on the weekend a car that will compete with a Toyota, but you can produce something that competes with Britannica.

If peer production is not notable, then Apache’s share of the server market is unsurprising, Wikipedia’s ability to compete with Britannica is old news, Bill Gates surely anticipated that Corbis would have to compete with Flickr for stock photography – peer production isn’t new, but its effects are.

A novel or Hollywood movie can’t be done through peer production – the point is to figure out what can be done. How do we resolve questions of cooperation through mechanisms like granularity?

There is a related shift from well-behaved appliances like TVs and CD players to production tools like PCs. The bifurcation between commercial and consumer goods is blurring.

Businesses are trying to figure out how to use this. IBM is making more money from Linux services than from patents (I think I missed a qualification of this claim – don’t blame Benkler if this is inaccurate). The BBC is getting cellphone pictures for reporting on things like recent bombings. Google captures individual judgments about relevance, builds Blogger to generate more content, allows annotation of maps, runs on GNU/Linux servers. This isn’t a fad or bubble 2.0, but a sustainable and growing movement. But it is a threat to and threatened by incumbent business models which seek regulatory intervention. Examples: software patents, attempts to mandate trusted systems. These regulatory interventions are the key to the future.

The internet is a source of democratization. In 2002, the mainstream media didn’t cover the rollout of voting machines, but one activist got ahold of some Diebold files and posted them for anyone to look at. One academic did so and found interesting results. Someone sent the activist a bunch of Diebold emails and put them up. She got a DMCA letter, but copies had already spread to Swarthmore and elsewhere – they could not be suppressed. The content of the emails revealed that voting machines had not been properly certified in California; the revelations led to decertification of many machines. The Swarthmore students ultimately won a court case against Diebold, but that came long after the election: The internet was the source of democratization.

The first generation critique of internet democratization is that it will lead to a Babel of chattering voices.

The second generation critique invokes power laws to say we’ll all still be watching blockbusters, so nothing will change.

Benkler is Goldilocks, as he discusses in Chapter 7 of Wealth of Networks. He is making an empirical claim that the internet supports topical clusters of interest and mechanisms of peer review that move certain information up in visibility. We are not all pamphleteers, but we are not all lemmings. These changes make us more free, not completely free.

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