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[f2c] Yochai Benkler

Yochai Benkler, author of the single most important book about the Internet — The Wealth of Networks — is giving a “theme-setting” talk.

He points to the wide distribution of computer power and “insight, intuition and experience” across the population, as opposed to their concentration during the industrial revolution. The behaviors that have already been there but on the periphery — friendship, cooperation, decency — now move to the core. We see “commons-based prodiuction,” i.e., produciton without exclusion from the inputs and outputs. This decentralizes the authority to act. “The commons locates authority to act where capacity resides.”

It enables peer production and sharing: cooperation without control or the price system. It is based on social relations. (See “Sharing Nicely.”) He points to the success of open source software, and to a mapping of Mars craters by a collaborative process (“Martian clickworkers”). Also, of course, Wikipedia. He asks us to imagine when Wikipedia started that someone predicted that Nature would find it about equal to Britannica in its science articles in five years. He concludes: “We’re beginning to see a solution space, rather than a particular phnenomenon.” There’s a “load balancing of motivations over time” — people can contribute when they want and for whatever reasons they have.

“Building such platforms is hard.” “Coase’s Penguin” says peer production tasks require modularity, granularity and integration. (He says he’s been working on seeing how this works. He’s looking at experimental literaure on cooperation and reciprocity, game theory, evolutionary biology and anthropology. “There are more design levers than I initially thought.” Factors include: Self-selection, communication, humanization, trust construction, norm creation, transparency, monitoring/peer review/discipline and fairness. Introducing money can muck things up.

So long as large-scale needed to be concentrated, we were llimited to firms and governments, or we could work in decentralized form through the market. Now we’re seeing a non-market decentralization via social sharing and exchange…a parallel form of production. We go from recording industry to p2p, Microsoft to open source, Grollier to wikipedia, telecoms to Skype. And there are new “opportunity spaces,” from well behaved appliances to production tools. He points to the BBC citizen journalism effort, among other examples. [Yochai moves very quickly. . This is the double fudge Death by Chocolate form of knowledge overload.]

But, this is a threat to incumbent business models. So there’s a battle on. Yochai shifts to politics. “The core idea is that people now as a practical matter can do more for and by themselves.” And they can do more in loose assoiciation with others. When it comes to democracy, our epxerience “is purely with a mass mediated public sphere.” We’re beginning to learn what it means to have a networked public sphere. He recounts how concerns about e-voting machines from Diebold were raised by activitists, put out info, and how it spread.

The Internet democratizes. It’s boring by now, but important, he says. The first generation objections are generally unfounded: “The Daily Me” fragmentation hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t polarize the way claimed. For one thing, polarization is a matter of interpretation: Is 85% of links pointing to like-minded sites a sign of polarization or its opposite? And the power law misses the topology of the Net that hooks small sites to large sites as part of a community. Those large sites then can get the word out.

There’s a strong “see for yourself” ethic. We come to understand that everything we read is a provisional judgment, rather than training ourselves to seek authority as we did in the mass distribution system.

The Human Development Index depends on who and how produces information, Commons-based and peer production are beginning to help: open source, open academic publishing , free hs science texts in South Africa, BiOS and BioForge out of Australia.

The threat is being played out over institutional ecology. “Rules can make some actions easier or harder.” Incumbernts are trying to make distributed production harder, more expensive, subject to permission. And there’s a push back to be free and productive. Broadband duopoly vs. muni broadband. “Trusted computing systems” vs. general purpose devices. Software patents vs. free and open source. DMCA vs. sharing and open innovation. There’s been a tightening up of all the “toggles,” e.g., copyright. “Law has been systematically optimized for control-based business models…”

“But we’re beginning to practice new ways of being free and equal human beings.” This is subject to a persistent battle.

Now there’s a panel: Mark Cooper, Elliot Maxwell, KC Clafy and Gigi Sohn.

Elliot Maxwell talks about Yochai’s ideas applied to pharmaceuticals. Among other things, he points to the PLoS library of failed clinical trials.

KC Claffy (Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis). Things we cannot measure on the Internet: The topology from one point to another at any layer. Propagation of routing. Router won’t give us its entire state (it’s second best routes.) One way delay from two places on the Internet without customized instruments. Can’t get an hour of packets from the core. Accurate flow counts. Accurate bandwidth. How much spam, phishing. A commons infrastructure would allow all this. (See this presentation.)

GG Sohn from Public Knowledge first praises The Wealth of Networks. Then she says that her one complaint is that Yochai gives the government too much of a break.

Mark Cooper wants to chart a course between Yochai’s optimism and Lessig’s pessimism. Yochai points to the use of collaborative production in the material economy. But, in his politics he shrugs off the attacks under the claim that in the long run the superior mode of production will prevail. “I think he’s clueless about politics.” But, “we can build an alternative politics on Yochai’s epistemological and moral base.” We need more than the blogosphere. We have not yet shown we can transform the public sphere. The public sphere needs institutions that transform the routine activities of daily life. [Yes, but how we do this except by having good ideas an implementing them? E.g., come up with another Creative Commons.]

Q: (isenberg) Yochai, would you like to address whether loose goosey has a chance against righty tighty?
A: There’s a common thread between Gigi and Mark. In the long term we care about social practices rather than policies, laws and institutions, because those are subsystems we occupy and life practices are the outcome. Law matters, but the critical question is: Do we need an affirmative set of rules that will enable things, or is blocking bad law and rules enough? I used to work on reforming laws and was pessimistic, and now I’ve flipped. “I do think that what we’re seeing in the Net roots, in the blogosphere, in the global access to knowledge is that political organization is also shifting away rom the standing institutional model, toward more ad hoc networks that mix different kinds of players nad get updated over time…and that disconnect and reconnect, rather than relying on stable institutions…I see the future of political engagement being much flatter, ad hoc…” [Tags: ]

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