Review: The Wealth of Networks

3 08 2008

The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 515 pp.

Abstraction can succeed in a variety of mediums. In the arts, particularly painting and sculpture, depicting real world objects in non-representational ways is widely praised for “capturing something of the depicted objects’ immutable intrinsic qualities rather than its external appearance,” according to Wikipedia.

However, abstraction may not be the best vehicle for explaining the complex topic of today’s information networks. For this reason, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom falls short for relying on too many abstract examples rather than tapping more of the rich, real-world examples to drive his analysis. And for this, Benkler, a professor of law at Yale Law School, shouldn’t be considered a Picasso of text either.

The Wealth of Networks explores how “the series of changes in technologies, economic organization, and social practices has created new environments and opportunities for how we make and exchange information, knowledge and culture.” In fewer words, Benkler examines how the “Internet revolution” impacts information and culture. The book is comprehensive, ranging from business strategies to power laws to the conflict of broadband access privatization. To his credit, Benkler explores modern day information networks from all angles, but keeping fluidity to the content appears to be a challenge. To compensate, Benkler frequently resorts to stating, “The networked information economy has created change,” in a variety of forms as he introduces each new topic and relies upon abstract examples to support definitions and provide consistency.

Too often, Benkler relies on abstract examples to explain economic environments. In Chapter 5 he discusses why some portions of telecommunications and information exchanges systems should have been built as commons in the mid-1990s, when the market structure of modern communications was developed. Instead of providing real world examples, Benkler explains market scenarios in the abstract, detailing for a few pages how companies A, B, C, and D could interact based upon “commons vs. private ownership” scenarios.

“Now imagine that D owns the entire infrastructure,” Benkler writes. “If A wants to get information from B or to communicate to C in order to persuade C to act in a way that is beneficial to A, A needs D’s permission.” While this abstract example is fairly easy to follow, it is not conducive to memorable, effective learning. Not only does this abstract method bore readers, but it fails to extend theory to reality, which should be the purpose of providing the example. He uses the same abstract tactics to describe “linking” in Chapter 11, “transactional frameworks” in Chapter 4, “autonomy” in Chapter 5, “justice” in Chapter 9 and just often enough to limit what could have been a narrative read, similar to Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, to a more simple reference text.

Benkler does succeed where he identifies tangible, real-world examples that support his statements. In Chapter 7, he provides the Stolen Honor documentary case study to explain how the networked public sphere can disrupt the power of mass media. Benkler details how popular blogs such as dailyKos.com and MyDD.com and one new blog, BoycottSBG.com, organized to undermine television station powerhouse Sinclair Broadcastings’ alleged political agenda and expose to the public and advertisers that the Stolen Honor documentary, which Sinclair Broadcasting intended to air in swing states, was propaganda against then Democratic-presidential candidate John Kerry.

Because Benkler’s approach is so broad, he ranges his content from basic definitions to in-depth case studies within the same breath, making the flow of information feel inconsistent. For example, just pages ahead of the Stolen Honor case study, Benkler provides readers with a basic definition of blogs. The expectation that the same readers who need a definition of blogs can also immediately understand a complex example of blogs’ impact in news and the public sphere, which requires a familiarity with how blogs fit into the digital media landscape, seems shaky. Because of these quick transitions of reader expectations, it’s difficult to decipher what audience Benkler is writing for.

Overall, The Wealth of Networks is an excellent source for understanding the end-to-end network of information that the Internet has enabled but should be considered a reference text rather than a book to consume cover to cover. Readers should be ready for abrupt jumps from topic to topic and narrative movements from basic definitions to detailed case studies without warning. The text is published both in print and online, in PDF, html and Wiki, though the online access was down as of the time that this review was published.

Although Benkler occasionally stumbles when relying on abstractions and struggles in transitions between topics and levels of analysis, The Wealth of Networks does present comprehensive, relevant content that students of networked information should entertain.

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