5. Individual Freedom: Autonomy, Information, and Law

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Summary of the chapter


The emergence of the networked information economy has the potential to increase individual autonomy in three ways.

First, it increases the range of things that individuals can do for and by themselves. Information networks can lift many of the material constraints and costs of the industrial information economy. Most of the tools necessary for effective action and communication are now widely available to people in networked environments.

Second, the networked information economy provides alternatives to the proprietary sources of information/communication typical in the industrial economy. The presence of these nonproprietary alternatives decreases the extent to which individuals are being acted upon by the owners of the communications facilities. The culture of passive televiewing subjected its participants to the manipulations of the communications and broadcasting companies. Although this culture lives on, it is losing its dominance in today's information environment.

Third, the internet increases the range and diversity of information available to individuals. It does so by enabling all sources-- both mainstream and fringe-- to produce information and communicate broadly. This diversity and accessibility of information radically changes the universe of options that individuals recognize as open for them to pursue. An increase in available options creates a richer basis to form critical judgments expanded opportunities for critical reflection.

Freedom to do More for Oneself, By Oneself, and With Others

As the internet has become widespread, growing numbers of people have siezed the opportunity to increase their participation in education, entertainment, and volunteerism. The development of networked space brings society another step further away from the dark ages of Taylorism by increasing our faith that we can make something of our own volition that is valuable to society.

The section begins with examples of the ways that the internet has expanded participation in what were traditionally considered to be large, complicated projects closed to public involvement. Entertainment has shifted from the highly passive culture of television and movies-- media that control the entire experience for an inert viewer. Technological advances have enabled people to make their own media projects and distribute them over the internet. Rory Cejas' twenty-minute film The Jedi Saga is an example.

Internet gameplayers have changed the experience of computer games by serving as both players and programmers. Second Life, a game by Linden Labs, provides online gameplayers only with tools to create objects and story lines in the game. Ninety-nine percent of the objects in the game environment were created by gameplayers.

Peer production activities like Wikipedia entries, blogs, or Project Gutenberg text editing allow internet-users to contribute to academic and political discourse or, at the very least, to volunteer a few hours to help make information and ideas more accessible. These activities, trivial as each example may sound, help blur the line between production and consumption and create a radically decentralized, nonmarket forum for information exchange. When production and consumption are both cheap, people are able to make and see what they want.

The second half of the section is devoted to a discussion about how one should define "autonomy." The autonomy literature is split between theorists who define autonomy in substantive terms, and theorists who don't, believing instead that autonomous action is axiomatic. Those in the latter camp commit to a formal conception of autonomy because, as soon as autonomous action is given any substantive definition, we fail to accord people's decisions with adequate respect and risk treating them paternalistically.

Though an overly specific definition of "autonomy" could surely lead to overbearing paternalism, a formal definition of "autonomy" does too little to evaluate the degrees to which a person is more or less free, and more or less able to attain individual self-authorship. A formal definition ignores all sorts of constraints that predictably limit an individual's agency. A sufficient conception of autonomy demands that individuals have the capacity to form opinions and plans and defend them, and also to become persuaded to change them. This definition is flexible enough to accomodate any particular viewpoint or action, so long as it is the product of a free thought.

Autonomy, Property, and Commons

The networked information economy threatens the current proprerty-like regulatory structure of patents and copyrights. A shift from a property system to a commons system is likely to yield improvements in internet-user autonomy.

Exclusionary property rights are designed to serve two distinct goals. First, property rights secure resource availability. People will design and pursue their plans if they can be assured that their resources will be available to them in the future. Second, property rights assure freedom of action by creating markets for goods or services that people need to pursue their goals or execute their plans. Freedom of action and security of resources are both necessary elements for autonomous action. But exclusive property rights, and the markets that develop around them, are not the only institutions that can preserve freedom of action and availability of resources. Property-based markets use regulations and constraints to create a system in which some people have more power with regard to some things than others, thereby allowing the property-owner to sell.

Commons are an alternative form of instutional space. The relative power constraints applied to the players are different in commons spaces than they are in exclusive property rights regimes, but freedom of action and security of resource availability are nevertheless achieved. For example, I can plan to meet my friends for a picnic in a public park, not because I own the park, but because I know that the park will havew enough space for us and will be free for us to use. Freedom of action and security of resources are achieved because of the relative equality of all people who go to use the park, and because of the non-rivalrous nature of the park as a resource (that is, my picnic doesn't prevent other people from using the park in the future or even at the same time.)

Information, being non-rivalrous in nature, lends itself well to a commons system. In fact, a commons system provides more security of context for information than it does a roadway or park or other usual type of commons. Thus a more expansive commons will improve individual autonomy, while enclosure of the public domain will undermine it.

Autonomy and the Information Environment

Autonomy, Mass Media, and Nonmarket Information Producers


Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples


Key Concepts