Chapter 1, section 1

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 1: Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge, section 1:

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy


Chapter 1

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

The most advanced economies in the world today have made two parallel shifts that, paradoxically, make possible a significant attenuation of the limitations that market-based production places on the pursuit of the political values central to liberal societies. The first move, in the making for more than a century, is to an economy centered on information (financial services, accounting, software, science) and cultural (films, music) production, and the manipulation of symbols (from making sneakers to branding them and manufacturing the cultural significance of the Swoosh). The second is the move to a communications environment built on cheap processors with high computation capabilities, interconnected in a pervasive network - the phenomenon we associate with the Internet. It is this second shift that allows for an increasing role for nonmarket production in the information and cultural production sector, organized in a radically more decentralized pattern than was true of this sector in the twentieth century. The first shift means that these new patterns of production - nonmarket and radically decentralized - will emerge, if permitted, at the core, rather than the periphery of the most advanced economies. It promises to enable social production and exchange to play a much larger role, alongside property- and market-based production, than they ever have in modern democracies.

The first part of this book is dedicated to establishing a number of basic economic observations. Its overarching claim is that we are seeing the emergence of a new stage in the information economy, which I call the "networked information economy." It is displacing the industrial information economy that typified information production from about the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. What characterizes the networked information economy is that decentralized individual action - specifically, new and important cooperative and coordinate action carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies - plays a much greater role than it did, or could have, in the industrial information economy. The catalyst for this change is the happenstance of the fabrication technology of computation, and its ripple effects throughout the technologies of communication and storage. The declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world's population - on the order of a billion people around the globe. The core distinguishing feature of communications, information, and cultural production since the mid-nineteenth century was that effective communication spanning the ever-larger societies and geographies that came to make up the relevant political and economic units of the day required ever-larger investments of physical capital. Large-circulation mechanical presses, the telegraph system, powerful radio and later television transmitters, cable and satellite, and the mainframe computer became necessary to make information and communicate it on scales that went beyond the very local. Wanting to communicate with others was not a sufficient condition to being able to do so. As a result, information and cultural production took on, over the course of this period, a more industrial model than the economics of information itself would have required. The rise of the networked, computer-mediated communications environment has changed this basic fact. The material requirements for effective information production and communication are now owned by numbers of individuals several orders of magnitude larger than the number of owners of the basic means of information production and exchange a mere two decades ago.

The removal of the physical constraints on effective information production has made human creativity and the economics of information itself the core structuring facts in the new networked information economy. These have quite different characteristics than coal, steel, and manual human labor, which characterized the industrial economy and structured our basic thinking about economic production for the past century. They lead to three observations about the emerging information production system. First, nonproprietary strategies have always been more important in information production than they were in the production of steel or automobiles, even when the economics of communication weighed in favor of industrial models. Education, arts and sciences, political debate, and theological disputation have always been much more importantly infused with nonmarket motivations and actors than, say, the automobile industry. As the material barrier that ultimately nonetheless drove much of our information environment to be funneled through the proprietary, market-based strategies is removed, these basic nonmarket, nonproprietary, motivations and organizational forms should in principle become even more important to the information production system.

Second, we have in fact seen the rise of nonmarket production to much greater importance. Individuals can reach and inform or edify millions around the world. Such a reach was simply unavailable to diversely motivated individuals before, unless they funneled their efforts through either market organizations or philanthropically or state-funded efforts. The fact that every such effort is available to anyone connected to the network, from anywhere, has led to the emergence of coordinate effects, where the aggregate effect of individual action, even when it is not self-consciously cooperative, produces the coordinate effect of a new and rich information environment. One needs only to run a Google search on any subject of interest to see how the "information good" that is the response to one's query is produced by the coordinate effects of the uncoordinated actions of a wide and diverse range of individuals and organizations acting on a wide range of motivations - both market and nonmarket, state-based and nonstate.

Third, and likely most radical, new, and difficult for observers to believe, is the rise of effective, large-scale cooperative efforts - peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. These are typified by the emergence of free and open-source software. We are beginning to see the expansion of this model not only to our core software platforms, but beyond them into every domain of information and cultural production - and this book visits these in many different domains - from peer production of encyclopedias, to news and commentary, to immersive entertainment.

It is easy to miss these changes. They run against the grain of some of our most basic Economics 101 intuitions, intuitions honed in the industrial economy at a time when the only serious alternative seen was state Communism - an alternative almost universally considered unattractive today. The undeniable economic success of free software has prompted some leading-edge economists to try to understand why many thousands of loosely networked free software developers can compete with Microsoft at its own game and produce a massive operating system - GNU/Linux. That growing literature, consistent with its own goals, has focused on software and the particulars of the free and open-source software development communities, although Eric von Hippel's notion of "user-driven innovation" has begun to expand that focus to thinking about how individual need and creativity drive innovation at the individual level, and its diffusion through networks of like-minded individuals. The political implications of free software have been central to the free software movement and its founder, Richard Stallman, and were developed provocatively and with great insight by Eben Moglen. Free software is but one salient example of a much broader phenomenon. Why can fifty thousand volunteers successfully coauthor Wikipedia, the most serious online alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then turn around and give it away for free? Why do 4.5 million volunteers contribute their leftover computer cycles to create the most powerful supercomputer on Earth, SETI@Home? Without a broadly accepted analytic model to explain these phenomena, we tend to treat them as curiosities, perhaps transient fads, possibly of significance in one market segment or another. We should try instead to see them for what they are: a new mode of production emerging in the middle of the most advanced economies in the world - those that are the most fully computer networked and for which information goods and services have come to occupy the highest-valued roles.

Human beings are, and always have been, diversely motivated beings. We act instrumentally, but also noninstrumentally. We act for material gain, but also for psychological well-being and gratification, and for social connectedness. There is nothing new or earth-shattering about this, except perhaps to some economists. In the industrial economy in general, and the industrial information economy as well, most opportunities to make things that were valuable and important to many people were constrained by the physical capital requirements of making them. From the steam engine to the assembly line, from the double-rotary printing press to the communications satellite, the capital constraints on action were such that simply wanting to do something was rarely a sufficient condition to enable one to do it. Financing the necessary physical capital, in turn, oriented the necessarily capital-intensive projects toward a production and organizational strategy that could justify the investments. In market economies, that meant orienting toward market production. In state-run economies, that meant orienting production toward the goals of the state bureaucracy. In either case, the practical individual freedom to cooperate with others in making things of value was limited by the extent of the capital requirements of production.

In the networked information economy, the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society. Personal computers and network connections are ubiquitous. This does not mean that they cannot be used for markets, or that individuals cease to seek market opportunities. It does mean, however, that whenever someone, somewhere, among the billion connected human beings, and ultimately among all those who will be connected, wants to make something that requires human creativity, a computer, and a network connection, he or she can do so - alone, or in cooperation with others. He or she already has the capital capacity necessary to do so; if not alone, then at least in cooperation with other individuals acting for complementary reasons. The result is that a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals, who interact with each other socially, as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system. Sometimes, under conditions I specify in some detail, these nonmarket collaborations can be better at motivating effort and can allow creative people to work on information projects more efficiently than would traditional market mechanisms and corporations. The result is a flourishing nonmarket sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production, based in the networked environment, and applied to anything that the many individuals connected to it can imagine. Its outputs, in turn, are not treated as exclusive property. They are instead subject to an increasingly robust ethic of open sharing, open for all others to build on, extend, and make their own.

Because the presence and importance of nonmarket production has become so counterintuitive to people living in market-based economies at the end of the twentieth century, part I of this volume is fairly detailed and technical; overcoming what we intuitively "know" requires disciplined analysis. Readers who are not inclined toward economic analysis should at least read the introduction to part I, the segments entitled "When Information Production Meets the Computer Network" and "Diversity of Strategies in our Current Production System" in chapter 2, and the case studies in chapter 3. These should provide enough of an intuitive feel for what I mean by the diversity of production strategies for information and the emergence of nonmarket individual and cooperative production, to serve as the basis for the more normatively oriented parts of the book. Readers who are genuinely skeptical of the possibility that nonmarket production is sustainable and effective, and in many cases is an efficient strategy for information, knowledge, and cultural production, should take the time to read part I in its entirety. The emergence of precisely this possibility and practice lies at the very heart of my claims about the ways in which liberal commitments are translated into lived experiences in the networked environment, and forms the factual foundation of the political-theoretical and the institutional-legal discussion that occupies the remainder of the book.

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

Chapter 1, section 2

Four Methodological Comments

Chapter 1, section 3

The Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment

Chapter 1, section 4

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy