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Cultural Environmentalism and the Wealth of Networks

I have finally posted my review of Yochai Benkler’s excellent book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.  It is a somewhat atypical book review in that I situate the book within cultural environmentalism.  (I almost titled the review, Boyle, Benkler, and Beyond, but that seemed a bit corny.)  I welcome comments.  Abstract below the fold …

In The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, Professor Yochai Benkler provides a thorough and intellectually rich account of our modern information environment and its interrelationship with law, technology, and critically, networks. The book is remarkable in its breadth and depth. Benkler’s primary thesis in the book is that the wealth of networks lies in the potential for widespread participation in the making, sharing, and experiencing of the information environment. The emerging networked nature of the information economy unlocks human potential and enables participation in an unprecedented manner. To support his claim that such change is in fact underway, Benkler offers a rich descriptive account of the networked information environment. To support his normative claim that such change ought to be allowed if not encouraged, Benkler appeals to a range of liberal political theories. In the end, Benkler frames a battle over the institutional ecology of the information environment and explains how incumbents may resist change at various layers of the system.To explore how Benkler accomplishes so much, this Review situates his book within cultural environmentalism, a complementary framework for integrating the seemingly disparate areas of policy brought together in The Wealth of Networks. Cultural environmentalism as a theory of information policy originated with Jamie Boyle’s 1996 book, Shamans, Software, and Spleens, and his attendant scholarship. Boyle issued a call to arms to protect our cultural environment and used cultural environmentalism as a metaphor to spur the organization of a political, social, and intellectual movement.

Cultural environmentalism is potentially valuable as an analytical construct because it focuses attention on our relationships with complex systems that are significantly more nuanced and varied than suggested by more traditional theories of information policy derived from economics or romantic notions of authorship and inventorship. With respect to the natural environment, environmentalism led to a better understanding of natural resource systems and our relationship to those systems, and consequently to an understanding that regulation is needed to preserve and protect those systems for sustainable use. Cultural environmentalism has yet to generate similar understandings, both descriptively regarding the systems and our relationships to them, and normatively regarding the consequences of how we choose to regulate the information environment.

Benkler takes significant strides in remedying these deficiencies. Situating his book within the framework of cultural environmentalism reveals its contributions to our understanding of those systems that comprise the cultural environment, how we relate to those systems, and the normative consequences of different regulatory choices we might choose. This framing helps to make The Wealth of Networks more accessible, and at the same time, provides a useful lens for commenting on and extending Benkler’s analysis.