Vol. 16 No. 8 (August, 2006) pp.572-575


THE WEALTH OF NETWORKS: HOW SOCIAL PRODUCTION TRANSFORMS MARKETS AND FREEDOM, by Yochai Benkler.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.  528pp.  Hardcover. $40.00. ISBN: 0-300-11056-1.  


Reviewed by Debora Halbert, Department of History and Political Science, Otterbein College.  Email:  Dhalbert [at] otterbein.edu.


My initial thought on seeing the title for Benkler’s book was that an update for Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS was long overdue.  It is no revelation that the networked world we now inhabit is substantially different from the world for which Smith argued claims that the “invisible hand” of the marketplace would create a public good by allowing self-interest to drive economic forces. That we should rethink the tenets of liberalism in terms of an information economy seems obvious, especially the role of self-interest and the concept of the public good. 


Modern political economy, according to Yochai Benkler, must take into consideration the transformative impact of new communication technology, especially the Internet, on how we produce knowledge.  Benkler’s liberalism describes a richer understanding of the public good created not as the by-product of self-interested individuals, but by what Benkler calls “social production” – where networks of individuals use technology to create a more democratic and free society.  The crux of the book’s argument is that heightened individual autonomy and access to political and economic forces are possible because of the power of networks.  While he does not ignore community (in fact, he suggests that liberalism has a difficult time dealing conceptually with it), the reasons for why a networked world is superior stem from Benkler’s desire to see the emergence of more markets and politics based upon individual effort and creativity. 


Although he is generally pro-technology, especially regarding the Internet, Benkler is not a techno-utopianist.  He argues that techno-utopianists who see the Internet as a perfect public platform are incorrect, but so are the technophobes who believe the Internet simply leads to increasing fragmentation and alienation.  He seeks to strike a middle ground, arguing that the industrial media model of central control over mass communication fits nicely with authoritarian structures (p.197) and that the Internet allows for improvements in the public sphere specific to political communication that were simply not available prior to the existence of a network.  While the open society made possible by the Internet is an improvement and should provide better access to knowledge, Benkler does not ignore the deep “digital divide” that exists between the global north and south.  He dedicates a short chapter to the problems of development and access (Chapter Nine), though I think this issue needs more attention than what is covered here.


Benkler’s writing is at its best when he provides specific examples that enrich [*573] his argument about the power of an open form of social production.  When making the argument that the public sphere is enriched by an open network, his story regarding the emergence of the Deibold electronic voter scandal from Internet margin to political mainstream is an excellent example of both the power of the network and the ways in which new voices are able to insert themselves into the public discourse in a manner never before possible (pp.225-233).  The new public sphere, is not, however, an equal platform for all.  Instead, Benkler nicely clarifies that hierarchy persists, with some voices being heard more than others.  However, as Benkler argues, the network is more democratic than the model it is replacing, it offers new opportunities and should be judged not against some utopian claim regarding equal access for all, but rather against the mass-mediated model it will (hopefully) replace (p.247). 


The book is divided into three parts.  The first deals with economic issues related to what Benkler calls the “rise of social production” (p.122).  In this section, he claims that social production is superior to the paradigm of private production.  Benkler argues that the Internet allows for a type of decentralization not possible under the past mass communication model (pp.54-56).  The model of social production is pitted against the protection of information by copyrights and patents.  The “rise” of social production will, if allowed, replace the old proprietary intellectual property based model. 


In Chapter Four, Benkler claims that social production is perfectly consistent with our current economic models and that we do not have to change our assumptions about human nature to understand the changes taking place in a networked economy (pp.91-92).   To the non-economist, it is unclear why such great effort needs to be taken to preserve traditional economic theory.  Perhaps these theories are simply wrong if they cannot account for social networks, gifts, altruism, the value of community, and all the other aspects of a social system where the individual is not the only unit of analysis. 


Benkler is correct when he points out that social production is not “new” (p.48); after all, Peter Kropotin talked about social production using the term “mutual aid” in the nineteenth century.  People spend a good deal of time outside markets creating networks of meaning and community (despite the incursion of markets into every aspect of American life).  Benkler could have turned to work done by women as an example of social production.  Liberal feminists have often argued that, if women were paid for their domestic work, it would amount to untold billions of dollars.  Markets, in other words, are the thin gloss on top of a world ripe with “social production” – a world of gifts and networks.  What the Internet has done is simply expand these networks beyond geographically defined areas and provide a more efficient method for communication and building what humans seem to do naturally – make social connections.  What is not clear is why Benkler finds it necessary to justify social production within mainstream economic theory instead of simply arguing that these theories are flawed.  Despite the placement of the [*574] argument in terms of conceptual systems, I agree with Benkler’s outcome – that the most democratic and free form of collaboration, knowledge production, and creative processes, emerge not from proprietary markets but from a world of social production where mutual aid is the norm.   


Part Two looks at political economy and suggests that a cultural shift is underway that demassifies culture and places the possibility of creating into the hands of the many (pp.134-135).  It is now possible to live a more “self-authored life” because of the Internet than it was in previous societies (p.139).  This section makes a compelling argument for the value of the Internet to political freedom and individual autonomy and, as already noted, claims that while these new technologies are not a panacea, they are substantially better than the status quo


While it is essential to take up issues of culture, development and distributive justice (which Benkler does), these are not the central focus of the book, and as a result the chapters tend to be short and less well developed than the argument about political economy.  I would like to see the cultural and development issues taken up at greater length.  Despite his ties to liberal theory, his work could be enriched by using the critical theorists and their critique of mass culture.  Given the depth of the argument and attention to detail in the rest of the book, the chapters on culture and development fall a bit short.


Part Three illustrates the problems facing social production and the methods used to capture the wealth of social production and privatize it.  He concludes the book by asking the reader to understand their role in creating a more open and democratic culture.  Benkler sees the transformation that can be wrought by networks as essential for democracy, but not inevitable.  The information economy could produce a more free and democratic future (p.471), but only if appropriate choices are made.  Unfortunately, it seems that the choices that would lead us towards a more free and democratic world are not the most compelling to those who benefit from the status quo.  Benkler convincingly argues that the possibilities of greater freedom and democracy are at this very moment losing out to a system of privatization and proprietary networks.  In fact, as Chapter Eleven outlines in great detail, the battle is being lost on virtually every front.  Industries seeking protection are using government to close off the opportunity for open innovation in favor of their privileged position within the economy. 


While his examples are galling, perhaps the most flagrant violation of the public interest includes the passage of state laws prohibiting the creation of municiple wi-fi networks at affordable prices for all residents of a city area (in other words, the creation of an open public network).  Thus, city residents in Texas cannot create local high-speed public networks because the Texas legislature at the request of Southwestern Bell (SBC) prohibited such networks (p.407).  Similar laws exist around the country, prohibiting local areas from providing what would be a very valuable service to citizens [*575] and, of course, ensuring that the only available alternative is a for-profit monopoly.  Other examples abound at all layers of the information infrastructure, which, Benkler notes, includes the physical, logical, and content layers (p.392).  Thus, while Benkler lays out a compelling argument for the value of an open technological infrastructure and a cultural environment set free from the restraints of copyright law, his conclusion suggests that the forces seeking a more open network are losing.  Suddenly, I want to believe that the forces of history will sweep in and move us towards greater freedom, since otherwise it is difficult to see who will do the moving. 


Benkler suggests that a “free culture” social movement is developing (p.455).  He argues that “there is a widespread, global culture of ignoring exclusive rights” (p.456), where even the most oppressive of proprietary systems will not totally squash free culture.  However, given the political and legal control those seeking proprietary systems exert, I wonder if perhaps the forces of resistance might need to be stronger.


THE WEALTH OF NETWORKS details the emergence of a networked society that if allowed to flourish will produce more value than does a proprietary system.  The evidence demonstrates that networks allowing free exchange absent intellectual property barriers are superior to those that cordon off knowledge with patents and copyrights.  His argument is well developed and thoroughly supported.  I have read work by Benkler in the past and have always admired the clarity with which he writes and the power of his ideas.  This book deserves to be read beyond the scope of the few scholars interested in intellectual property issues.  While it appears the book owes its intellectual debt as much to Kropotkin as to Adam Smith, Benkler’s unwavering support for modern liberalism is sure to appeal to those who make policy and reap benefits from the status quo.  Despite its cautious nature on the theoretical front (Benkler is not arguing a radical point of view), the book is sure to spark controversy and discussion. Given the imminent threat to the openness of the Internet and all the benefits that come with that openness, one can hope that many people read this book and begin, as Benkler suggests that they do, to “understand the normative stakes of what we are doing” (p.473).


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Debora Halbert.