Chapter 1, section 2

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

Chapter 1 Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge, section 2:

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies


Chapter 1

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 1, section 1

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

How we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us are core components of the shape of freedom in any society. Part II of this book provides a detailed look at how the changes in the technological, economic, and social affordances of the networked information environment affect a series of core commitments of a wide range of liberal democracies. The basic claim is that the diversity of ways of organizing information production and use opens a range of possibilities for pursuing the core political values of liberal societies - individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory political system, a critical culture, and social justice. These values provide the vectors of political morality along which the shape and dimensions of any liberal society can be plotted. Because their practical policy implications are often contradictory, rather than complementary, the pursuit of each places certain limits on how we pursue the others, leading different liberal societies to respect them in different patterns. How much a society constrains the democratic decision-making powers of the majority in favor of individual freedom, or to what extent it pursues social justice, have always been attributes that define the political contours and nature of that society. But the economics of industrial production, and our pursuit of productivity and growth, have imposed a limit on how we can pursue any mix of arrangements to implement our commitments to freedom and justice. Singapore is commonly trotted out as an extreme example of the trade-off of freedom for welfare, but all democracies with advanced capitalist economies have made some such trade-off. Predictions of how well we will be able to feed ourselves are always an important consideration in thinking about whether, for example, to democratize wheat production or make it more egalitarian. Efforts to push workplace democracy have also often foundered on the shoals - real or imagined - of these limits, as have many plans for redistribution in the name of social justice. Market-based, proprietary production has often seemed simply too productive to tinker with. The emergence of the networked information economy promises to expand the horizons of the feasible in political imagination. Different liberal polities can pursue different mixtures of respect for different liberal commitments. However, the overarching constraint represented by the seeming necessity of the industrial model of information and cultural production has significantly shifted as an effective constraint on the pursuit of liberal commitments.

Enhanced Autonomy

The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions: (1) it improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere. This enhanced autonomy is at the core of all the other improvements I describe. Individuals are using their newly expanded practical freedom to act and cooperate with others in ways that improve the practiced experience of democracy, justice and development, a critical culture, and community.

I begin, therefore, with an analysis of the effects of networked information economy on individual autonomy. First, individuals can do more for themselves independently of the permission or cooperation of others. They can create their own expressions, and they can seek out the information they need, with substantially less dependence on the commercial mass media of the twentieth century. Second, and no less importantly, individuals can do more in loose affiliation with others, rather than requiring stable, long-term relations, like coworker relations or participation in formal organizations, to underwrite effective cooperation. Very few individuals living in the industrial information economy could, in any realistic sense, decide to build a new Library of Alexandria of global reach, or to start an encyclopedia. As collaboration among far-flung individuals becomes more common, the idea of doing things that require cooperation with others becomes much more attainable, and the range of projects individuals can choose as their own therefore qualitatively increases. The very fluidity and low commitment required of any given cooperative relationship increases the range and diversity of cooperative relations people can enter, and therefore of collaborative projects they can conceive of as open to them.

These ways in which autonomy is enhanced require a fairly substantive and rich conception of autonomy as a practical lived experience, rather than the formal conception preferred by many who think of autonomy as a philosophical concept. But even from a narrower perspective, which spans a broader range of conceptions of autonomy, at a minimum we can say that individuals are less susceptible to manipulation by a legally defined class of others - the owners of communications infrastructure and media. The networked information economy provides varied alternative platforms for communication, so that it moderates the power of the traditional mass-media model, where ownership of the means of communication enables an owner to select what others view, and thereby to affect their perceptions of what they can and cannot do. Moreover, the diversity of perspectives on the way the world is and the way it could be for any given individual is qualitatively increased. This gives individuals a significantly greater role in authoring their own lives, by enabling them to perceive a broader range of possibilities, and by providing them a richer baseline against which to measure the choices they in fact make.

Democracy: The Networked Public Sphere

The second major implication of the networked information economy is the shift it enables from the mass-mediated public sphere to a networked public sphere. This shift is also based on the increasing freedom individuals enjoy to participate in creating information and knowledge, and the possibilities it presents for a new public sphere to emerge alongside the commercial, mass-media markets. The idea that the Internet democratizes is hardly new. It has been a staple of writing about the Internet since the early 1990s. The relatively simple first-generation claims about the liberating effects of the Internet, summarized in the U.S. Supreme Court's celebration of its potential to make everyone a pamphleteer, came under a variety of criticisms and attacks over the course of the past half decade or so. Here, I offer a detailed analysis of how the emergence of a networked information economy in particular, as an alternative to mass media, improves the political public sphere. The first-generation critique of the democratizing effect of the Internet was based on various implications of the problem of information overload, or the Babel objection. According to the Babel objection, when everyone can speak, no one can be heard, and we devolve either to a cacophony or to the reemergence of money as the distinguishing factor between statements that are heard and those that wallow in obscurity. The second-generation critique was that the Internet is not as decentralized as we thought in the 1990s. The emerging patterns of Internet use show that very few sites capture an exceedingly large amount of attention, and millions of sites go unnoticed. In this world, the Babel objection is perhaps avoided, but only at the expense of the very promise of the Internet as a democratic medium.

In chapters 6 and 7, I offer a detailed and updated analysis of this, perhaps the best-known and most contentious claim about the Internet's liberalizing effects. First, it is important to understand that any consideration of the democratizing effects of the Internet must measure its effects as compared to the commercial, mass-media-based public sphere, not as compared to an idealized utopia that we embraced a decade ago of how the Internet might be. Commercial mass media that have dominated the public spheres of all modern democracies have been studied extensively. They have been shown in extensive literature to exhibit a series of failures as platforms for public discourse. First, they provide a relatively limited intake basin - that is, too many observations and concerns of too many people in complex modern societies are left unobserved and unattended to by the small cadre of commercial journalists charged with perceiving the range of issues of public concern in any given society. Second, particularly where the market is concentrated, they give their owners inordinate power to shape opinion and information. This power they can either use themselves or sell to the highest bidder. And third, whenever the owners of commercial media choose not to exercise their power in this way, they then tend to program toward the inane and soothing, rather than toward that which will be politically engaging, and they tend to oversimplify complex public discussions. On the background of these limitations of the mass media, I suggest that the networked public sphere enables many more individuals to communicate their observations and their viewpoints to many others, and to do so in a way that cannot be controlled by media owners and is not as easily corruptible by money as were the mass media.

The empirical and theoretical literature about network topology and use provides answers to all the major critiques of the claim that the Internet improves the structure of the public sphere. In particular, I show how a wide range of mechanisms - starting from the simple mailing list, through static Web pages, the emergence of writable Web capabilities, and mobility - are being embedded in a social system for the collection of politically salient information, observations, and comments, and provide a platform for discourse. These platforms solve some of the basic limitations of the commercial, concentrated mass media as the core platform of the public sphere in contemporary complex democracies. They enable anyone, anywhere, to go through his or her practical life, observing the social environment through new eyes - the eyes of someone who could actually inject a thought, a criticism, or a concern into the public debate. Individuals become less passive, and thus more engaged observers of social spaces that could potentially become subjects for political conversation; they become more engaged participants in the debates about their observations. The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization. We are seeing the emergence of new, decentralized approaches to fulfilling the watchdog function and to engaging in political debate and organization. These are being undertaken in a distinctly nonmarket form, in ways that would have been much more difficult to pursue effectively, as a standard part of the construction of the public sphere, before the networked information environment. Working through detailed examples, I try to render the optimism about the democratic advantages of the networked public sphere a fully specified argument.

The networked public sphere has also begun to respond to the information overload problem, but without re-creating the power of mass media at the points of filtering and accreditation. There are two core elements to these developments: First, we are beginning to see the emergence of nonmarket, peer-produced alternative sources of filtration and accreditation in place of the market-based alternatives. Relevance and accreditation are themselves information goods, just like software or an encyclopedia. What we are seeing on the network is that filtering for both relevance and accreditation has become the object of widespread practices of mutual pointing, of peer review, of pointing to original sources of claims, and its complement, the social practice that those who have some ability to evaluate the claims in fact do comment on them. The second element is a contingent but empirically confirmed observation of how users actually use the network. As a descriptive matter, information flow in the network is much more ordered than a simple random walk in the cacophony of information flow would suggest, and significantly less centralized than the mass media environment was. Some sites are much more visible and widely read than others. This is true both when one looks at the Web as a whole, and when one looks at smaller clusters of similar sites or users who tend to cluster. Most commentators who have looked at this pattern have interpreted it as a reemergence of mass media - the dominance of the few visible sites. But a full consideration of the various elements of the network topology literature supports a very different interpretation, in which order emerges in the networked environment without re-creating the failures of the mass-media-dominated public sphere. Sites cluster around communities of interest: Australian fire brigades tend to link to other Australian fire brigades, conservative political blogs (Web logs or online journals) in the United States to other conservative political blogs in the United States, and to a lesser but still significant extent, to liberal political blogs. In each of these clusters, the pattern of some high visibility nodes continues, but as the clusters become small enough, many more of the sites are moderately linked to each other in the cluster. Through this pattern, the network seems to be forming into an attention backbone. "Local" clusters - communities of interest - can provide initial vetting and "peer-review-like" qualities to individual contributions made within an interest cluster. Observations that are seen as significant within a community of interest make their way to the relatively visible sites in that cluster, from where they become visible to people in larger ("regional") clusters. This continues until an observation makes its way to the "superstar" sites that hundreds of thousands of people might read and use. This path is complemented by the practice of relatively easy commenting and posting directly to many of the superstar sites, which creates shortcuts to wide attention. It is fairly simple to grasp intuitively why these patterns might emerge. Users tend to treat other people's choices about what to link to and to read as good indicators of what is worthwhile for them. They are not slavish in this, though; they apply some judgment of their own as to whether certain types of users - say, political junkies of a particular stripe, or fans of a specific television program - are the best predictors of what will be interesting for them. The result is that attention in the networked environment is more dependent on being interesting to an engaged group of people than it is in the mass-media environment, where moderate interest to large numbers of weakly engaged viewers is preferable. Because of the redundancy of clusters and links, and because many clusters are based on mutual interest, not on capital investment, it is more difficult to buy attention on the Internet than it is in mass media outlets, and harder still to use money to squelch an opposing view. These characteristics save the networked environment from the Babel objection without reintroducing excessive power in any single party or small cluster of them, and without causing a resurgence in the role of money as a precondition to the ability to speak publicly.

Justice and Human Development

Information, knowledge, and information-rich goods and tools play a significant role in economic opportunity and human development. While the networked information economy cannot solve global hunger and disease, its emergence does open reasonably well-defined new avenues for addressing and constructing some of the basic requirements of justice and human development. Because the outputs of the networked information economy are usually nonproprietary, it provides free access to a set of the basic instrumentalities of economic opportunity and the basic outputs of the information economy. From a liberal perspective concerned with justice, at a minimum, these outputs become more readily available as "finished goods" to those who are least well off. More importantly, the availability of free information resources makes participating in the economy less dependent on surmounting access barriers to financing and social-transactional networks that made working out of poverty difficult in industrial economies. These resources and tools thus improve equality of opportunity.

From a more substantive and global perspective focused on human development, the freedom to use basic resources and capabilities allows improved participation in the production of information and information-dependent components of human development. First, and currently most advanced, the emergence of a broad range of free software utilities makes it easier for poor and middle-income countries to obtain core software capabilities. More importantly, free software enables the emergence of local capabilities to provide software services, both for national uses and as a basis for participating in a global software services industry, without need to rely on permission from multinational software companies. Scientific publication is beginning to use commons-based strategies to publish important sources of information in a way that makes the outputs freely available in poorer countries. More ambitiously, we begin to see in agricultural research a combined effort of public, nonprofit, and open-source-like efforts being developed and applied to problems of agricultural innovation. The ultimate purpose is to develop a set of basic capabilities that would allow collaboration among farmers and scientists, in both poor countries and around the globe, to develop better, more nutritious crops to improve food security throughout the poorer regions of the world. Equally ambitious, but less operationally advanced, we are beginning to see early efforts to translate this system of innovation to health-related products.

All these efforts are aimed at solving one of the most glaring problems of poverty and poor human development in the global information economy: Even as opulence increases in the wealthier economies - as information and innovation offer longer and healthier lives that are enriched by better access to information, knowledge, and culture - in many places, life expectancy is decreasing, morbidity is increasing, and illiteracy remains rampant. Some, although by no means all, of this global injustice is due to the fact that we have come to rely ever-more exclusively on proprietary business models of the industrial economy to provide some of the most basic information components of human development. As the networked information economy develops new ways of producing information, whose outputs are not treated as proprietary and exclusive but can be made available freely to everyone, it offers modest but meaningful opportunities for improving human development everywhere. We are seeing early signs of the emergence of an innovation ecosystem made of public funding, traditional nonprofits, and the newly emerging sector of peer production that is making it possible to advance human development through cooperative efforts in both rich countries and poor.

A Critical Culture and Networked Social Relations

The networked information economy also allows for the emergence of a more critical and self-reflective culture. In the past decade, a number of legal scholars - Niva Elkin Koren, Terry Fisher, Larry Lessig, and Jack Balkin - have begun to examine how the Internet democratizes culture. Following this work and rooted in the deliberative strand of democratic theory, I suggest that the networked information environment offers us a more attractive cultural production system in two distinct ways: (1) it makes culture more transparent, and (2) it makes culture more malleable. Together, these mean that we are seeing the emergence of a new folk culture - a practice that has been largely suppressed in the industrial era of cultural production - where many more of us participate actively in making cultural moves and finding meaning in the world around us. These practices make their practitioners better "readers" of their own culture and more self-reflective and critical of the culture they occupy, thereby enabling them to become more self-reflective participants in conversations within that culture. This also allows individuals much greater freedom to participate in tugging and pulling at the cultural creations of others, "glomming on" to them, as Balkin puts it, and making the culture they occupy more their own than was possible with mass-media culture. In these senses, we can say that culture is becoming more democratic: self-reflective and participatory.

Throughout much of this book, I underscore the increased capabilities of individuals as the core driving social force behind the networked information economy. This heightened individual capacity has raised concerns by many that the Internet further fragments community, continuing the long trend of industrialization. A substantial body of empirical literature suggests, however, that we are in fact using the Internet largely at the expense of television, and that this exchange is a good one from the perspective of social ties. We use the Internet to keep in touch with family and intimate friends, both geographically proximate and distant. To the extent we do see a shift in social ties, it is because, in addition to strengthening our strong bonds, we are also increasing the range and diversity of weaker connections. Following Manuel Castells and Barry Wellman, I suggest that we have become more adept at filling some of the same emotional and context-generating functions that have traditionally been associated with the importance of community with a network of overlapping social ties that are limited in duration or intensity.

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 Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies