Chapter 1, section 3
Chapter 1 Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge, section 3:
The Emergence of the Networked Information Economy
Networked Information Economy and Liberal, Democratic Societies
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 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.
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 Stakes of It All: The Battle Over the Institutional Ecology of the Digital Environment
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).