Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Book Review – The Wealth of Networks

The Wealth of Networks is Yochai Benkler’s heavyweight analysis of the state of the internet in the early part of the 21st Century. In the book, Benkler argues strongly in favour of what he calls ‘social production’, which harnesses impulses, time and resources that, in the industrial information economy, would have been wasted or used purely for consumption. The immediate effect of this social production is therefore likely to increase overall productivity in the sectors where it is effective.

However, this does not mean that its effect on market based enterprises is neutral. A newly effective form of social behaviour, coupled with a cultural shift in tastes as well as the development of new technological and social solutions spaces to problems that were once solved through market-based firms, exercises a significant force on the shape and conditions of market action. The Wealth of Nations is an in-depth examination of the forces that are bringing about this change, and the efforts of existing industrial media providers, particularly in the United States, to restrict this change by lobbying for stricter laws in relation to copyright and patents.

Benkler cites many examples of social production that have come about through the web, such as Wikipedia, Linux and Folding@Home (which utilises un-used computing cycles to carry out protein research). He views the new collaborative models as something to be encouraged and assisted, on the basis that the pursuit of knowledge, unfettered by excessive restrictions of intellectual property, benefits individual freedom and the common good. The book shows how the way information and knowledge are made available can either limit or enlarge the ways people create and express themselves.

In truth, it is quite difficult to summarise this book. It is 473 pages of incredibly in-depth research and analysis on the development of social production and the challenges which it faces from the ‘industrial media’ sector. You will not read this on one train journey or one transcontinenatal flight. It is important reading for anyone with an interest in the future of the internet and the social co-operation that it has enabled in many diverse areas of research, artistic expression and knowledge sharing.

If you happen to have read Lawrence Lessig’s ‘The Future of Ideas’, you will see a certain amount of overlap with the arguments put forward by Benkler in The Wealth of Nations. This is not to criticise either book or writer; they have both contributed greatly to our understanding of the battle between those who would enable the spread of new ideas and those who would restrict them out of self-interest. However, both books cover similar ground in relation to copyright laws.
In 1776, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, which is viewed by some as the blueprint for the capitalist system. The Wealth of Networks, in its title, implies that it contains a blueprint for a new economic system. This is not strictly correct – the networked economy which Benkler sees emerging generates wealth largely in a social sense rather than in a monetary sense. But it is inaccurate to label the book as anti-capitalist – to put it simply, Benkler argues for a reasoned and balanced approach between the commercial and the social aspects of the internet.

Surprisingly, The Wealth of Networks focuses almost entirely on social production of digital products – software, media and scientific data. It does not refer to how social production might impact manufacturing or durable goods. The reader can, however, take the arguments put forward and envision how they might apply to the developing field of digital manufacturing. Could present day extensions to copyright laws inhibit the future development of a digital manufacturing economy? Time will tell.

Benkler, Yochai; The Wealth of Networks; Yale University Press 2006. ISBN 0-300-11056-1.

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