Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thoughts on Benkler

by James de Haan

Networked Information Economies; according to Yochai Benkler, the man behind the term, is a "system of production, distribution, and consumption of information goods characterized by decentralized individual action carried out through widely distributed, nonmarket means that do not depend on market strategies". The internet is a new form of information exchange that seemingly allows this to happen; the information technology of the internet allows for unprecedented amounts of collaboration, to a point that simply hasn’t been seen before. Creative Commons, Wikis, and open source are all examples of the good this level of collaboration brings; Benkler’s own book on the subject was even published in creative commons. He goes on to argue that this level of communication allows for a culture to be much more self reflective and empowered than it would be otherwise; we see this already with the blog phenomenon, wherein a large number of people eager to be relevant and to have their opinions matter jump onto a system has the power to seemingly do that.

From this new system of communication, a new form of production has seemed to come through; that of a cooperative, non-market based model. And when I say non-market based, I mean that in the strictest of senses; it literally has little basis on physical money and, while certain market principles still hold true, it is not dependent on money. Rather, it is dependent on the community and how they view you and your production. This, in Benkler’s view, is what makes networked information economies so democratic; the consumer and the producer are at the same level and have the same say in things. Contrast this with a industrial information economy in which monetary and physical capital constrained this from happening and you see a new form of economy that one would be foolish not to wish to be a part of.

But what of motivation? After all, can a group of consumers really be motivated to do something that does not have any monetary gain in it. In Benkler’s eyes, this is an oversimplification; people cannot simply be reduced to positive and negative utility whose actions can be translatable to money. He gives this example; “If you leave a fifty-dollar check on the table at the end of a dinner party at a friend's house, you do not increase the probability that you will be invited again.

We live our lives in diverse social frames, and money has a complex relationship with these - sometimes it adds to the motivation to participate, sometimes it detracts from it.”[1]

He goes on to discuss the viability of there being two markets; one based on social incentive, one based on monetary incentive. One market does not directly respond to the incentives of the other, but the market based on monetary incentive could lead to desperate people selling faulty product; the example he cites is the blood market, with people with bad blood seeking to sell and those with good indulging in the altruistic model. So there are two markets with two different rewards; one leads to higher economic standing, and one to higher social standing. The blood example is a pretty good way to show how communities can work in web 2.0; we don’t do it because we get money, we do it because we get fame and this system can even prove more efficient.

But will any of this pie in the sky market idealism work? I don’t believe so. Benkler sees this new networked information-based economy as joining hands with the market based; social standing and monetary benefits work together to motivate more efficiently than simply market incentives alone. Right now, you need a lot of social standing to motivate as well as money can; I can’t do much, even in my group of friends, but if I monetize their reward for fulfilling my demand they are much willing to do it. That isn’t to say my standing socially doesn’t help with this, but money works quicker and better. Even if society adopts this new community-based incentive system, it still wouldn’t be as efficient and easy to motivate, as it was with money alone. So maybe we are moving to a point where what we add to a production is valued higher than it is now, but the two systems will never go hand-in-hand in the way Benkler envisions.

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