Chapter 1, section 3

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss Four Methodological Comments

Chapter 1 Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge, section 3:

Four Methodological Comments


Chapter 1

The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 1, section 1

Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies

Chapter 1, section 2

Four Methodological Comments

There are four methodological choices represented by the thesis that I have outlined up to this point, and therefore in this book as a whole, which require explication and defense. The first is that I assign a very significant role to technology. The second is that I offer an explanation centered on social relations, but operating in the domain of economics, rather than sociology. The third and fourth are more internal to liberal political theory. The third is that I am offering a liberal political theory, but taking a path that has usually been resisted in that literature-considering economic structure and the limits of the market and its supporting institutions from the perspective of freedom, rather than accepting the market as it is, and defending or criticizing adjustments through the lens of distributive justice. Fourth, my approach heavily emphasizes individual action in nonmarket relations. Much of the discussion revolves around the choice between markets and nonmarket social behavior. In much of it, the state plays no role, or is perceived as playing a primarily negative role, in a way that is alien to the progressive branches of liberal political thought. In this, it seems more of a libertarian or an anarchistic thesis than a liberal one. I do not completely discount the state, as I will explain. But I do suggest that what is special about our moment is the rising efficacy of individuals and loose, nonmarket affiliations as agents of political economy. Just like the market, the state will have to adjust to this new emerging modality of human action. Liberal political theory must first recognize and understand it before it can begin to renegotiate its agenda for the liberal state, progressive or otherwise.

The Role of Technology in Human Affairs

The first methodological choice concerns how one should treat the role of technology in the development of human affairs. The kind of technological determinism that typified Lewis Mumford, or, specifically in the area of communications, Marshall McLuhan, is widely perceived in academia today as being too deterministic, though perhaps not so in popular culture. The contemporary effort to offer more nuanced, institution-based, and political-choice-based explanations is perhaps best typified by Paul Starr's recent and excellent work on the creation of the media. While these contemporary efforts are indeed powerful, one should not confuse a work like Elizabeth Eisenstein's carefully argued and detailed The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, with McLuhan's determinism. Assuming that technologies are just tools that happen, more or less, to be there, and are employed in any given society in a pattern that depends only on what that society and culture makes of them is too constrained. A society that has no wheel and no writing has certain limits on what it can do. Barry Wellman has imported into sociology a term borrowed from engineering-affordances./1 Langdon Winner called these the "political properties" of technologies./2 An earlier version of this idea is Harold Innis's concept of "the bias of communications."/3 In Internet law and policy debates this approach has become widely adopted through the influential work of Lawrence Lessig, who characterized it as "code is law."/4

The idea is simple to explain, and distinct from a naïve determinism. Different technologies make different kinds of human action and interaction easier or harder to perform. All other things being equal, things that are easier to do are more likely to be done, and things that are harder to do are less likely to be done. All other things are never equal. That is why technological determinism in the strict sense - if you have technology "t," you should expect social structure or relation "s" to emerge - is false. Ocean navigation had a different adoption and use when introduced in states whose land empire ambitions were effectively countered by strong neighbors - like Spain and Portugal - than in nations that were focused on building a vast inland empire, like China. Print had different effects on literacy in countries where religion encouraged individual reading - like Prussia, Scotland, England, and New England - than where religion discouraged individual, unmediated interaction with texts, like France and Spain. This form of understanding the role of technology is adopted here. Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of individual and social action. It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and institutions easier to pursue, and others harder. In a challenging environment - be the challenges natural or human - it can make some behaviors obsolete by increasing the efficacy of directly competitive strategies. However, within the realm of the feasible-uses not rendered impossible by the adoption or rejection of a technology - different patterns of adoption and use can result in very different social relations that emerge around a technology. Unless these patterns are in competition, or unless even in competition they are not catastrophically less effective at meeting the challenges, different societies can persist with different patterns of use over long periods. It is the feasibility of long-term sustainability of different patterns of use that makes this book relevant to policy, not purely to theory. The same technologies of networked computers can be adopted in very different patterns. There is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. That is a choice we face as a society. The way we develop will, in significant measure, depend on choices we make in the next decade or so.

The Role of Economic Analysis and Methodological Individualism

It should be emphasized, as the second point, that this book has a descriptive methodology that is distinctly individualist and economic in orientation, which is hardly the only way to approach this problem. Manuel Castells's magisterial treatment of the networked society/5 locates its central characteristic in the shift from groups and hierarchies to networks as social and organizational models - looser, flexible arrangements of human affairs. Castells develops this theory as he describes a wide range of changes, from transportation networks to globalization and industrialization. In his work, the Internet fits into this trend, enabling better coordination and cooperation in these sorts of loosely affiliated networks. My own emphasis is on the specific relative roles of market and nonmarket sectors, and how that change anchors the radical decentralization that he too observes, as a matter of sociological observation. I place at the core of the shift the technical and economic characteristics of computer networks and information. These provide the pivot for the shift toward radical decentralization of production. They underlie the shift from an information environment dominated by proprietary, market-oriented action, to a world in which nonproprietary, nonmarket transactional frameworks play a large role alongside market production. This newly emerging, nonproprietary sector affects to a substantial degree the entire information environment in which individuals and societies live their lives. If there is one lesson we can learn from globalization and the ever-increasing reach of the market, it is that the logic of the market exerts enormous pressure on existing social structures. If we are indeed seeing the emergence of a substantial component of nonmarket production at the very core of our economic engine - the production and exchange of information, and through it of information-based goods, tools, services, and capabilities - then this change suggests a genuine limit on the extent of the market. Such a limit, growing from within the very market that it limits, in its most advanced loci, would represent a genuine shift in direction for what appeared to be the ever-increasing global reach of the market economy and society in the past half century.

Economic Structure in Liberal Political Theory

The third point has to do with the role of economic structure in liberal political theory. My analysis in this regard is practical and human centric. By this, I mean to say two things: First, I am concerned with human beings, with individuals as the bearers of moral claims regarding the structure of the political and economic systems they inhabit. Within the liberal tradition, the position I take is humanistic and general, as opposed to political and particular. It is concerned first and foremost with the claims of human beings as human beings, rather than with the requirements of democracy or the entitlements of citizenship or membership in a legitimate or meaningfully self-governed political community. There are diverse ways of respecting the basic claims of human freedom, dignity, and well-being. Different liberal polities do so with different mixes of constitutional and policy practices. The rise of global information economic structures and relationships affects human beings everywhere. In some places, it complements democratic traditions. In others, it destabilizes constraints on liberty. An understanding of how we can think of this moment in terms of human freedom and development must transcend the particular traditions, both liberal and illiberal, of any single nation. The actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national or social boundaries, across space and political division. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal-political association. In this fluid social economic environment, the individual's claims provide a moral anchor for considering the structures of power and opportunity, of freedom and well-being. Furthermore, while it is often convenient and widely accepted to treat organizations or communities as legal entities, as "persons," they are not moral agents. Their role in an analysis of freedom and justice is derivative from their role - both enabling and constraining - as structuring context in which human beings, the actual moral agents of political economy, find themselves. In this regard, my positions here are decidedly "liberal," as opposed to either communitarian or critical.

Second, I am concerned with actual human beings in actual historical settings, not with representations of human beings abstracted from their settings. These commitments mean that freedom and justice for historically situated individuals are measured from a first-person, practical perspective. No constraints on individual freedom and no sources of inequality are categorically exempt from review, nor are any considered privileged under this view. Neither economy nor cultural heritage is given independent moral weight. A person whose life and relations are fully regimented by external forces is unfree, no matter whether the source of regimentation can be understood as market-based, authoritarian, or traditional community values. This does not entail a radical anarchism or libertarianism. Organizations, communities, and other external structures are pervasively necessary for human beings to flourish and to act freely and effectively. This does mean, however, that I think of these structures only from the perspective of their effects on human beings. Their value is purely derivative from their importance to the actual human beings that inhabit them and are structured - for better or worse - by them. As a practical matter, this places concern with market structure and economic organization much closer to the core of questions of freedom than liberal theory usually is willing to do. Liberals have tended to leave the basic structure of property and markets either to libertarians - who, like Friedrich Hayek, accepted its present contours as "natural," and a core constituent element of freedom - or to Marxists and neo-Marxists. I treat property and markets as just one domain of human action, with affordances and limitations. Their presence enhances freedom along some dimensions, but their institutional requirements can become sources of constraint when they squelch freedom of action in nonmarket contexts. Calibrating the reach of the market, then, becomes central not only to the shape of justice or welfare in a society, but also to freedom.

Whither the State?

The fourth and last point emerges in various places throughout this book, but deserves explicit note here. What I find new and interesting about the networked information economy is the rise of individual practical capabilities, and the role that these new capabilities play in increasing the relative salience of nonproprietary, often nonmarket individual and social behavior. In my discussion of autonomy and democracy, of justice and a critical culture, I emphasize the rise of individual and cooperative private action and the relative decrease in the dominance of market-based and proprietary action. Where in all this is the state? For the most part, as you will see particularly in chapter 11, the state in both the United States and Europe has played a role in supporting the market-based industrial incumbents of the twentieth-century information production system at the expense of the individuals who make up the emerging networked information economy. Most state interventions have been in the form of either captured legislation catering to incumbents, or, at best, well-intentioned but wrongheaded efforts to optimize the institutional ecology for outdated modes of information and cultural production. In the traditional mapping of political theory, a position such as the one I present here - that freedom and justice can and should best be achieved by a combination of market action and private, voluntary (not to say charitable) nonmarket action, and that the state is a relatively suspect actor - is libertarian. Perhaps, given that I subject to similar criticism rules styled by their proponents as "property"-like "intellectual property" or "spectrum property rights" - it is anarchist, focused on the role of mutual aid and highly skeptical of the state. (It is quite fashionable nowadays to be libertarian, as it has been for a few decades, and more fashionable to be anarchist than it has been in a century.)

The more modest truth is that my position is not rooted in a theoretical skepticism about the state, but in a practical diagnosis of opportunities, barriers, and strategies for achieving improvements in human freedom and development given the actual conditions of technology, economy, and politics. I have no objection in principle to an effective, liberal state pursuing one of a range of liberal projects and commitments. Here and there throughout this book you will encounter instances where I suggest that the state could play constructive roles, if it stopped listening to incumbents for long enough to realize this. These include, for example, municipal funding of neutral broadband networks, state funding of basic research, and possible strategic regulatory interventions to negate monopoly control over essential resources in the digital environment. However, the necessity for the state's affirmative role is muted because of my diagnosis of the particular trajectory of markets, on the one hand, and individual and social action, on the other hand, in the digitally networked information environment. The particular economics of computation and communications; the particular economics of information, knowledge, and cultural production; and the relative role of information in contemporary, advanced economies have coalesced to make nonmarket individual and social action the most important domain of action in the furtherance of the core liberal commitments. Given these particular characteristics, there is more freedom to be found through opening up institutional spaces for voluntary individual and cooperative action than there is in intentional public action through the state. Nevertheless, I offer no particular reasons to resist many of the roles traditionally played by the liberal state. I offer no reason to think that, for example, education should stop being primarily a state-funded, public activity and a core responsibility of the liberal state, or that public health should not be so. I have every reason to think that the rise of nonmarket production enhances, rather than decreases, the justifiability of state funding for basic science and research, as the spillover effects of publicly funded information production can now be much greater and more effectively disseminated and used to enhance the general welfare.

The important new fact about the networked environment, however, is the efficacy and centrality of individual and collective social action. In most domains, freedom of action for individuals, alone and in loose cooperation with others, can achieve much of the liberal desiderata I consider throughout this book. From a global perspective, enabling individuals to act in this way also extends the benefits of liberalization across borders, increasing the capacities of individuals in nonliberal states to grab greater freedom than those who control their political systems would like. By contrast, as long as states in the most advanced market-based economies continue to try to optimize their institutional frameworks to support the incumbents of the industrial information economy, they tend to threaten rather than support liberal commitments. Once the networked information economy has stabilized and we come to understand the relative importance of voluntary private action outside of markets, the state can begin to adjust its policies to facilitate nonmarket action and to take advantage of its outputs to improve its own support for core liberal commitments.

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

Chapter 1, section 4


1. Barry Wellman et al., "The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism," JCMC 8, no. 3 (April 2003).

2. Langdon Winner, ed., "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" in The Whale and The Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 19-39.

3. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951). Innis too is often lumped with McLuhan and Walter Ong as a technological determinist. His work was, however, one of a political economist, and he emphasized the relationship between technology and economic and social organization, much more than the deterministic operation of technology on human cognition and capability.

4. Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

5. Manuel Castells, The Rise of Networked Society (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 1 Summary | Bulleted Chapter 1
Discuss Four Methodological Comments