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Yochai Benkler

Interviewed by M. Six Silberman (six@fiveplusone.net)


24 May 2007

Yochai Benkler is Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, and formerly Director of
the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law and Policy at the New York University
School of Law. His recent work, including the 2002 paper "Coase's Penguin: Linux
and the Nature of the Firm" and 2005 book The Wealth of Networks: How Social
Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, introduced the term "commons-
based peer production" to explain the foundational economic phenomenon behind
the proliferation of user-created content on the web. He claims that peer production
constitutes a new mode of economic organization, enabled by the falling cost of
communication, that is fundamentally different from economic activity mediated by
markets, firms, or governments. Like Eben Moglen, he claims that this new mode of
production holds the potential to help address what he calls "the core political
values of liberal societies—individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory
political system, a critical culture, and social justice." I spoke briefly with Professor
Benkler over the phone.

Six: You have said that commons-based peer production "happens when large-
scale groups of people collaborate. The 'commons-based' part is when the
resources they use and the things they produce aren't owned by anyone
exclusively but rather are taken out of and given back to a common space." "The
organization isn't based on price...and isn't based on management hierarchy...but
rather is based on social relations, where people say, 'I can do this,' and other
people say, 'Well, you have not done it well, let me help out.'" Is this fair?

Benkler: Yes.

Great. So then what's next for social production? Cameron Sinclair has begun to
advocate for "open-source architecture" (of actual physical buildings); can the open
source movement produce, say, a design for something material like a car? A
financial instrument? A vaccine? A government?

One of the things that I've tried to be precise about [in the book, The Wealth of
Networks] is the boundaries about what's easy, what's hard, and what's impossible.
I think that we do see crossover innovation into things that are material. To begin
with I have the whole piece on sharing nicely. There are some material goods that
are shareable: carpooling is a real-world phenomenon; we also have mesh
networks and distributed computing. All of these are places where physical goods
that have excess capacity are widely distributed in the population in small dollops.

For problems that are design problems: design is just information. To the extent that
design can be done on computers, this can be done. The master of this is Erik von
Hippel on user innovation. Once information is shared in the commons, the
community can turn around and build it. This is already happening; all of these
things are not in the future.

Then there are things that are things where research materials are rare. (I have
discussed this in Chapter 9 [of The Wealth of Networks].) Biomedical innovation;
agricultural innovation: in research, different materials have different costs.
Depending on what is and isn't available, you can do more or less. Bioinformatics,
to the extent that it can be done on silicon, yes; but when you have rarer materials
what you are able to do with social production will be dictated by the cost structure
of those materials.

Generally speaking, to the extent that design can be done on computers, socially
produced innovation is not constrained. But different factors have different cost
structures.

The second question has to do with the cultural aspect of peer production. In your
chapter on cultural freedom, you write that "the practice of producing culture makes
us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged
makers." (Wealth of Networks 287) Bruce Sterling has said (rather flatly) "electronic
art stinks." We have got, he says, "electronic folk culture" which is "for
hicks" (Address to SXSWi 2007). One might be inclined to say that the million
monkeys are here, but Shakespeare, it seems, is somewhat behind schedule.
Does uploading YouTube clips and making MySpace pages really make us more
sophisticated readers, viewers and listeners? is there room in this novel cultural
space for "great art"? Or will the new cultural architecture force us to change our
understanding of what "great art" actually is?

I think there's a lot of anxiety about where quality comes from in distributed
environments. At the same time---and this is understandable, we value great art,
we value quality everything, we don't want it to disappear. The question is: what is
quality? and how much are we getting from the mass media culture that pervaded
the 20th century? High production doesn't mean quality. The best music didn't
necessarily make it commercial. Mass media doesn't necessarily give us quality; it
does give us passivity, and I think that's unattractive. The thing we see today are
cultural practices of review and annotation and recursion that we see everywhere
(f. ex. on YouTube) do require a different mode of participation. A lot of it will be
crap, and a lot of what comes out of mainstream media will be crap, as will a lot of
what comes out of supposedly authorized art. Really great stuff is rare. It's rare in
organized systems, it's rare in decntralized systems. Unless you think the system
you're coming from is really perfect at identifying, eliciting, and distributing high
quality, then you really have to examine the relative merit of these two systems. It's
not at all clear to me that the new system is suppressive of quality. The declaration
of quality comes from a set of exchanges as opposed to authorization by somebody
who is supposedly an expert who says, "this is art and that is not art."

Do you think that there is something inherent in the explicit commodification of


goods and services fundamental to our market mode of economic organization that
dehumanizes or devalues work, or the relationships between human beings?

No. I think that what we've learned in the years since Marx's writings is that
capitalism comes in many different flavors. The idea that market production
necesarily dehumanizes flies in the face of millions of people who work in
workplaces which have shifted to more cooperative models with more respect for
employees and more employee participation. There is also the fact that there are
many millions more who work in inhumane conditions. But the idea that it's
fundamentally impossible to create a workplace with humane and meaningful work
strikes me as inconsitent with observed realities in workplaces both in the
knowledge industries and elsewhere. There are real differences between places
that are good to work and places that are bad to work.

There has been a lot of talk about "reputation markets" and other approaches to
making social interactions—especially digitally mediated social interactions—more
like market interactions. What do you think of these?

I think it's a mistake and a failure of imagination. I think the idea that if you can't
crisply specify the exchange, somehow the relationship is not stable, ignores the
ubiquitous fact of cooperation. I think it's a mistake, and people who relentlessly
pursue the design of explicit systems rather than systems based on transparency
and conversation will end up losing.