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March 28, 2016, 11:28 a.m.
LINK: benkler.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 28, 2016

Harvard’s Yochai Benkler has been called “the leading intellectual of the information age.” His 2006 book The Wealth of Networks was a key document of Internet optimism, outlining how commons-based peer production could create new and better kinds of cultural production:

In the past decade and a half, we have begun to see a radical change in the organization of information production. Enabled by technological change, we are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation of how we make the information environment we occupy as autonomous individuals, citizens, and members of cultural and social groups. It seems passé today to speak of “the Internet revolution.” In some academic circles, it is positively naïve. But it should not be. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries.

Now, Benkler is out with a new paper that dials back some of that optimism. Or, more accurately, it notes that the original open design of the Internet is being usurped in important ways by a small cohort of technology companies, device manufacturers, governments, and more, and that threatens some of the gains (and hoped-for gains) the Internet first promised. (It’s an issue we’ve written about frequently within the specific context of journalism.)

The paper’s in the latest issue of Daedalus (which seems to have lots of other interesting articles too), it’s called “Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power,” and here’s the abstract:

The original Internet design combined technical, organizational, and cultural characteristics that decentralized power along diverse dimensions. Decentralized institutional, technical, and market power maximized freedom to operate and innovate at the expense of control. Market developments have introduced new points of control. Mobile and cloud computing, the Internet of Things, fiber transition, big data, surveillance, and behavioral marketing introduce new control points and dimensions of power into the Internet as a social-cultural-economic platform. Unlike in the Internet’s first generation, companies and governments are well aware of the significance of design choices, and are jostling to acquire power over, and appropriate value from, networked activity. If we are to preserve the democratic and creative promise of the Internet, we must continuously diagnose control points as they emerge and devise mechanisms of recreating diversity of constraint and degrees of freedom in the network to work around these forms of reconcentrated power.

(Think of “Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power” as a spiritual sequel to Benkler’s 2011 paper “Networks of Power, Degrees of Freedom.”)

From the new paper:

From the early days of public adoption of the Internet, there have been those who have seen decentralization primarily as a threat, empowering the nefarious, from criminals and pirates to pedophiles and terrorists to run-of-the-mill trolls and spammers. But because adaptive, flexible, loosely coupled systems were more likely to improve innovation and resilience in the face of rapid change and high uncertainty than controlled, optimized, well-behaved systems, the original Internet’s design reflected a sensibility that treated stasis as far more detrimental than disruption. Unless one is willing to claim that, on balance, that assumption was wrong for the past thirty-two years, that the next thirty-two years are likely to be less rapidly changing and uncertain, or that the risks that agility and rapid innovation present vastly and reliably outweigh their benefits, it seems that the Internet’s original design sensibility should continue to guide our future design choices. While defending that commitment is beyond the scope of this essay, I here outline a set of design interventions and challenges implied by present concentration trends, for those who wish to preserve the decentralizing effects of the early Internet.

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