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Networked information economies and political morality | Media Mass | Cameron Nordholm

In Yochai Benkler’s Toward a Political Economy of Information, he examines the prospective impact of a shift from what he calls an “industrial information economy” to a “networked information economy.” In this networked economy, the centralized production and distribution of information is challenged as networked individuals connect as engage users that actively participate in, create and judge information based on their own access to the new ecosystem of knowledge. Benkler does not suppose that this networked economy will supplant the industrial information economy, but it will, he asserts, have the potential for profound effects on the contours of liberal democracies. He defines these effects as applying to the wider political morality, the intent and actions of nations and their governments.

Within the sphere of political morality Benkler cites three core values of liberal democracies that stand to gain from this transition in particular: autonomy, democracy and social justice. While these three pillars may be expressed with varying degrees of emphasis in different nations, he says, all stand to be significantly impacted. “If the networked information economy is permitted to emerge from the institutional battle,” Benkler says, “it will enable an outward shift of the limits that productivity places on the political imagination… A society committed to any positive combination of the three values needs to adopt robust policies to facilitate these modes of production, because facilitating these modes of [networked] production does not represent a choice between productivity and liberal values, but rather an opportunity actually to relax the efficient limit on the plausible set of political arrangements available given the constraints of productivity.”[1]

Since Benkler’s 2003 piece, much has changed – and little has changed – in the networked economy landscape. A Google search for “democracy” today, to mirror his experiment in 2003, yields the Wikipedia entry not within the top ten, but as the first entry. This anecdote is instructive: radical new tools, platforms and paradigms that support and are derived from the emerging networked information economy have taken root since then. But, as he suggests in his paper, this transition is not occurring on neutral ground. Industrial information titans now contest the very network platform from which the substantive shifts in liberal democracies that are described in his piece are to be obtained. And although new popular platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have been massively successful in drawing audience and – at least venture – revenue, top industrial media companies still, it could be argued, dominate discourse and the production of culture, news and media in general. [2]

Little has changed in that the argument that Benkler presents on the potential for upending or enhancing the cause of liberal democracy – implicit value judgments about the value of doing so aside – has not been pursued aggressively perhaps only until recently in the United States. The intervening time since his publication has shown growth on above-mentioned platforms and in organic media production, including the expanding of participatory culture, social media and distribution. But the largely hypothetical challenges to corporate (aka industrial) control of media that he discusses are only now occurring, and in many nations efforts to evolve networks toward a new information economy have stalled on behalf of entrenched industrial interests. This reality, despite the seismic shifts in networked media, transcend the role of the individual and cast doubt on all three pillars of the political morality the Benkler invokes.

Comcast v. FCC, the 2010 United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling that attenuated the FCC’s regulatory capacity for the Internet, perhaps reflects the beginning of what will be an ongoing battle between these industrial interests and proponents of what Lawrence Lessig calls “Free Culture.” In his book by the same title, Lessig invokes how specifically the law ought to protect domains that support the public good, much as Benkler says about industrial interests, “technology will not overcome their resistance through some insurmountable progressive impulse.”[3]

To this end, Lessig invokes the 1945 opinion of Supreme Court Justice Douglas on whether airspace is the property of the owner of the physical ground under it. “Common sense revolts at the idea,” Lessig quotes, reflecting that, as he did in his book Code 2.0, the notion that the Internet “cannot be governed,” is “foolish.”[4] Entrenched interests therefore pose a significant threat the Benkler’s posited support of autonomy, democracy and social justice when they align with a willing government. And to counter the popular meme of the Internet’s innate wildness and ungovernable nature, Lessig succinctly responds,

“If there is any place that nature has no rule, it is in cyberspace. If there is any place that is constructed, it is cyberspace. If there is any place that is constructed, cyberspace is it.”[5]

Without legislative action to support a networked information economy, the delicate truce that avoids all-out war between these two information economies could be compared to the never-ending Korean conflict. The networked information economy is in a lightly fortified DMZ, and the traditional producers have so far been able to shift the battle lines.

All is not doom and gloom for Benkler’s supposition of a progressive political morality, however. A recent and dramatic example of a network information economy confronting entrenched interests comes from the opposition protest movement in Iran. In the wake of a suspect if not stolen presidential election in June 2009, supporters of the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi began a months-long protest that morphed into an international test of will for the sitting Iranian regime. Harsh censorship measures were immediately employed by the state, which were largely successful in restricting coverage by traditional media.[6] But online, supporters of the growing insurrection utilized social media platforms to communicate, share and organize not only without a concentrated industrial media, but also in spite of one compelled to distribute propaganda.[7]

In Iran, the terms of this information economy were not dictated by new online platforms but formed new streams of knowledge inside disinterested channels of information. Twitter, especially, not only provided a medium by which protesters could communicate with each other and with those outside Iran, but the platform itself was negotiated by its users to allow for expressions of political support. The “Help Iran Election” campaign asked the rapidly growing number of Twitter users to tint their avatar profiles green – the color of the opposition in Iran – and allowed them to change the geo-location of their Twitter profiles to Tehran, Iran, intending confuse authorities. [8],[9] Also notable was the digital martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian student allegedly shot to death by police. Her death was caught on a ninety-second camera phone video and immediately went viral on YouTube. Her memory became the rallying cry for weeks of protests, and confirmed for the outside what many within Tehran already knew: that the progressive ideals of a democratic election had been scuttled.[10] While the network information economy that this demonstrates did not did not ultimately change the outcome of the political dispute, these outlets and venues demonstrated a diverse and the flexible platform to enhance the opportunity for of these platforms demonstrated potential for furthering democracy, even if only in opposition to anti-democratic forces.

In addressing justice, specifically social justice as an opportunity to enhance societies along Benkler’s “three tracks,” there have been extremely interesting advances. Yet Benkler in most ways dismisses the notion that the same technologies that deliver benefits to the first world may also benefit the second and third.

“Education will do much more than a laptop and a high speed Internet connection in every home, though these might contribute in some measure to avoiding increasing inequality in the advanced economies, where opportunities for both production and consumption may increasingly be known only to those connected.”[11]

One interesting point he makes is that access to capital is in many cases the major limitation in economically depressed areas. It is true, as Benkler argues, that open source software and digital commons can support emerging information economies – and in some ways this has happened and is seen in projects such as One Laptop Per Child[12] or Linux-based networking appliances – but newer, web-borne services are creating new social entrepreneurship that address the question of capital itself.

In some ways the social lending platform Kiva addresses two of Benkler’s three-plank political morality argument. Not only does it extend opportunities in social justice by offering capital to businesspeople in developing nations, but it also enables individuals throughout the world to participate in the effort as never before possible, greatly increasing access to information but which a social contract may be created. Just as with Twitter, Facebook and many other contemporary platforms it still contains a chokepoint of centralized control, but the net effect of contributors is the only sustaining force that makes it – or any of these services – possible. This networked information about potential loan recipients, their businesses and goals.

These hubs also permit socially aware and economically functional groups to emerge in a commons without the restrictions of an industrial footprint, collecting information, conducting research and identifying tactics and strategies to solve problems for individuals half a world away. The design of such non-profit platforms can also experiment with the sociological aspects of organizing, both organically and institutionally.[13]

Within the three areas by which to evolve the political morality that Benkler discussed in 2003, all three have seen hopeful advancement. And while governmental and regulatory concerns – notwithstanding corporate and industrial powers – loom large, innovation and a developing networked economy continues to emerge. Just this month, the non-profit Pro Publica, an exclusively networked and non-profit journalism shop, brought home its first Pulitzer prize.

Organizations such as Fix Congress First and The Sunlight Foundation also continue to make headway in exposing the wealth of information and data needed to shine a light on campaigns and governance while thrusting political systems into the commons. Wikileaks, a truly open and anonymous resource recently broke a wall of silence around a controversial and tragic military action in Iraq. Restrictive intellectual property law, contested “net neutrality” and other encumbrances of the industrial information economy must be addressed, but it is perhaps less now a question of if the network information economy can grow, but if it can guarantee its own sustainability.

Bibliography

Benkler, Y. (2003). FREEDOM IN THE COMMONS: TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF INFORMATION. Duke Law Journal , 32.

Susannah Fox, K. Z. (2009, 10/21). Twitter and Status Updating, Fall 2009 . Retrieved 4/15, 2010, from Pew Research Center: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/17-Twitter-and-Status-Updating-Fall-2009.aspx

Garnsey, M. (Director). (2009). A Death in Tehran [Motion Picture]. PBS/FRONTLINE/BBC.

Lessig, L. (2006). Code Version 2.0. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

McAllister, S. (2010, 3 18). Facebook surpasses Google in weekly traffic. Retrieved 4 17, 2010, from Silicon Valley Mercury News: http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_14698296

Williams, D. (2009, 6 17). Iran blocks world from seeing poll protest bloodshed as rival Ahmadinejad and Mousavi supporters hit the streets. Retrieved 4 16, 2010, from Mail Online (UK): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1193401/Iran-bans-foreign-press-rival-Ahmadinejad-Mousavi-supporters-hit-streets.html


[1] Benkler, Y. (2003). FREEDOM IN THE COMMONS: TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF INFORMATION. Duke Law Journal , 32.

 

[2] McAllister, S. (2010, 3 18). Facebook surpasses Google in weekly traffic. Retrieved 4/17, 2010, from Silicon Valley Mercury News: http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_14698296

[3] Benkler, Y. (2003). FREEDOM IN THE COMMONS: TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF INFORMATION. Duke Law Journal , 32.

[4] Lessig Free Culture pp 2 Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. New York, NY: Penguin Group. Lessig, L. (2006). Code Version 2.0. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[5] Lessig, L. (2006). Code Version 2.0. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[6] Daily Mail, Williams, D. (2009, 6 17). Iran blocks world from seeing poll protest bloodshed as rival Ahmadinejad and Mousavi supporters hit the streets. Retrieved 4 16, 2010, from Mail Online (UK): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1193401/Iran-bans-foreign-press-rival-Ahmadinejad-Mousavi-supporters-hit-streets.html

[7] It is worth noting that the operation of the Twitter messaging service was in part guaranteed by the US State Department during this time: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSWBT01137420090616

[8] Susannah Fox, K. Z. (2009, 10/21). Twitter and Status Updating, Fall 2009 . Retrieved 4/15, 2010, from Pew Research Center: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/17-Twitter-and-Status-Updating-Fall-2009.aspx

[9] Burns, Alex, Eltham, Ben, . Network Insight Institute; 2009. Twitter free Iran: an evaluation of Twitter’s role in public diplomacy and information operations in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. http://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/vital/access/manager/Repository/swin:14971

[10] Garnsey, M. (Director). (2009). A Death in Tehran [Motion Picture]. PBS/FRONTLINE/BBC.

[11] Benkler, Y. (2003). FREEDOM IN THE COMMONS: TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF INFORMATION. Duke Law Journal , 32.

[12] See OLPC project http://laptop.org/en/vision/index.shtml

[13] Hartley, Scott E., Kiva.org: Crowd-Sourced Microfinance and Cooperation in Group Lending (March 25, 2010). Retrieved via SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1572182