Chapter 1 Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge
Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done. For more than 150 years, modern complex democracies have depended in large measure on an industrial information economy for these basic functions. In the past decade and a half, we have begun to see a radical change in the organization of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment we occupy as autonomous individuals, citizens, and members of cultural and social groups. It seems passé today to speak of "the Internet revolution." In some academic circles, it is positively naïve. But it should not be. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.
A series of changes in the technologies, economic organization, and social practices of production in this environment has created new opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge, and culture. These changes have increased the role of nonmarket and nonproprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations. These newly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games. Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century. This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.
The rise of greater scope for individual and cooperative nonmarket production of information and culture, however, threatens the incumbents of the industrial information economy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in the midst of a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment. A wide range of laws and institutions-from broad areas like telecommunications, copyright, or international trade regulation, to minutiae like the rules for registering domain names or whether digital television receivers will be required by law to recognize a particular code-are being tugged and warped in efforts to tilt the playing field toward one way of doing things or the other. How these battles turn out over the next decade or so will likely have a significant effect on how we come to know what is going on in the world we occupy, and to what extent and in what forms we will be able-as autonomous individuals, as citizens, and as participants in cultures and communities-to affect how we and others see the world as it is and as it might be.
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
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.
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.