Friday, November 23, 2007

The poor man's Benkler and Lessig

Martin Weller, at a fascinating seminar given by John Naughton on Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks, today described our recent exchange on the future of content as a debate between 'the poor man's Larry Lessig' (me - the pessimist) and 'the poor man's Yochai Benkler' (Martin - the optimist).

There are worse things in life than being thought of as the poor man's Lessig. John reckons I should stick it on the back cover of my book. When Martin becomes famous maybe I'll stick it on the front as a quote from the poor man's Benkler himself.

Update: I should have said that John set up a useful wiki for the seminar and Martin has very helpfully saved me the pleasure of producing a succinct summary of session.

John first set the context for the book, talking about the semiotics of the title and borrowed Castell's term about informed bewilderment to describe our current state when we look at the changes around us. That is, we have no shortage of data about what's happening, but we are still unsure as to what it all means. Benkler's book can be seen as an attempt to cast a scholarly light on this state of bewilderment.

Part of the reason for this bewilderment is that our analytical tools are not as useful as they once were (which is not to say they are completely useless). As John put it economics can be categorised as the analysis of scarcity, whereas what we have in a digital world is abundance. The scarce resource now is attention, and here the competition is now greatly increased from the days of TV dominance.

John also talked about the 'convergence fantasies' of many industries which always boil down to 'converge on to my device'. He argued that convergence happened long ago - onto the net.

He summarised Benkler's book as having six main arguments:

  • Until recently we had a highly industrialised info economy
  • This marginalised non market cultural production (“social production”)
  • ICT has reduced the cost of production and publication
  • Greatly enhanced power and potential of social production
  • This has major implications for economic, social cultural and political life
  • There will be a struggle between old world and new world.

We then went on to discuss three issues:

  1. How plausible is Benkler's analysis?
  2. What might it mean for education (and the OU)?
  3. What might it mean for society?

In terms of 1) I made the point that to an extent it was empirically true - that in open source communities, wikipedia, flickr, etc social production was already a major economic force. So even though critics (Carr, Gorman, Keen et al) may argue against it, the best response is 'yes but look at the facts'. I was reminded of Clay Shirky's memorable phrase regarding AT & T programmers when they first saw open source support in action:

"They didn't care that they'd seen it work in practice, because they already knew it couldn't work in theory."

Martin's given his blog a makeover too now he's in line for Edublog's best ed tech support blog award. Very post modern. Yet another reminder of the need to do something about the b2fxxx look and feel. Tony Hirst has also been nominated in the same category. Good luck to both.

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