Disconnected

The Weatlh of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press 2006. 515 pp.

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Four of my classmates and I at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, engaged in a social program with criminal juveniles last year. They were 14-17 year old boys who came from poor families. They were in a semi-open prison because of diverse crimes from shoplifting to homicide.

Our plan was to teach them how to use a blog and incentivize them to write. They would go to the Communication’s School once a week for a course with us. There were 10 participants when the classes started, but only two completed the course, and neither of them created a blog.

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Yochai Benkler writes a detailed book regarding the importance of the networks’ development. He believes that low cost computers and the rise of information technologies has led to a new stage in the information economy. According to Benkler, there are great opportunities in nonproprietary markets. People can make use of technologies to “reach and inform or edify millions around the world” (pp.4). The author argues that the networks facilitate a large number of collaborative efforts, especially in peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. He believes this creates growth and welfare opportunities in developing countries. Even though he states that the networks will not eliminate hunger and poverty, he exaggerates the benefits these countries will obtain with the new information economy.

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The students had less than six years of education. They would not absorb our explanations and would fall asleep while we discussed blogs, the Internet, and networks.

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In the chapter 9, Benkler presents commons-based strategies for development and agricultural research. He argues that “software developers from low-and middle-income countries can participate in the growing free software segment of this market” (pp.332), but does not consider the number of people actually capable of programming or utilizing advanced software. In Brazil, the number of potential free software developers that could produce specific programs responding to government and private-sector necessities is very low. Although he mentioned Brazil as one of the important developing countries in this sector, he omitted that less than 5% of the total population has a college degree and a high level of education is necessary to program computers.

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The second topic that Benkler doesn’t analyze adequately is food security and research on genetically modified (GM) food. Biogenetic laboratories, especially those sponsored by private companies, have less incentive to develop more nutritious seeds than more resilient ones. In the case of soy, corporations have created more resistant seeds that prevent plagues from destroying crops, not more nourishing beans. Moreover, the effects of GM food on humans and their impact on the natural environment are still unknown. Benkler cannot take for granted that production of transgenic food will be beneficial for humans. Also, there are serious economic implications on the establishment of genetically altered plantations in agricultural areas dominated by small family farms. In Brazil, plantation of GM soy was very controversial because the farmers who produced the conventional soy could not compete with those who had seeds from Monsanto.

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In one of the classes, we brought the Spanish movie “El Laberinto del Fauno”, intending to ask them to write a reflection afterwards. Although Spanish and Portuguese are similar enough to be basically intelligible by these native speakers, the participants could not completely understand the movie because it was not dubbed and the subtitles were too fast for their reading skills.

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My third concern on the book relates to the Babel objection or information overload. Benkler’s response to the Babel objection is coherent, but he missed a central point in the analogy he used: the language per se. I agree with Benkler that growth of networks will not cause discourse fragmentation. The large amount of information and connections that Internet provides is valuable for those who have access and users will create mechanisms to find what interests them. However, becoming a part of the global network requires more than computers and regular education. Individuals also need an international language to share information. Looking at Wikipedia, for example, the number of articles in English is about three times bigger than the second most common language, which is German. How can Benkler argue that a new global culture is being created if most of the world cannot even understand what has been said and written?

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Benkler’s attempt to explain the importance of networks in developed economies makes the book worth reading. However, he is far too optimistic about the efficacy of networks as tools for economic development in poor countries. Investment on education should be a higher priority than information technology. Moreover, his studies on food security and transgenesis don’t address the unintended effects and dangers of GM food. Finally, it is important to consider a common language as an essential tool in a global economy. Developing and poor countries should invest in a second language as a core part of the educational system to make global communication possible to the most part of the world.

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The classes ended after four months and the result was one handwritten text that five students wrote in collaboration. The participants didn’t show up on the weeks they should be in the computer lab, two of them escaped from the prison, and one of them died in a gang fight when he went home. For the certificate’s delivery, there were two boys. After the end of the course, we had a sensation that we were even further away their reality then we were before.

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Benefiting from Wealth of Networks requires more than cheap computers and fiber-optic cables. It requires a common language, literacy, education and the economic freedom necessary to take advantage of individual initiative and creativity.

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4 Responses to Disconnected

  1. rossophonic says:

    Raquel – Great job placing Benker’s utopian vision in perspective. I did not feel that Benkler said that digital technology could solve all problems. As you eloquently point out, the issues that criminal juveniles face is beyond that technology. I thought your strongest point was the low level of education and language skills that is an impediment for so many people. To that I would add cost. Even if the 100 dollar laptop takes hold, is internet access what villages without safe drinking water really need?
    I did feel your critique of genetically modified food was beyond the scope of Benkler’s work. I felt he was pointing to the advantages of a model of production based on openness and cooperation. As you point out the results of this production model may be harmful, but I don’t think the production model is where the responsibility lies. A book of matches makes it easier for an arsonist to burn down a house, but is not the cause of the bad outcome.

  2. Terry Short says:

    I thought your technique of interlacing your review with the touching and sad story of the juvenile offenders in Brazil was extremely effective. It provides a much-needed reality check for academics like Benkler, and for all of us on the fortunate side of the digital divide. Your anecdote illustrates the point that it’s going to take much more than handing out computers and internet access to the have-nots on the planet for them to begin to benefit from the optimistic new world that Benkler predicts will be facilitated by social production networks. Your point that less than 5% of the population of Brazil (the fifth most populous country on earth) has a college degree certainly belies his prediction about software developers from low- and middle-income countries benefitting from the free software movement.

    These criticisms along with your comments on Benkler’s attempt to field the Babel objection align with my main critique: that Benkler tends toward the overly-optimistic. In the same 5-page section that he takes on the Babel objection (“Critiques of the claims that the Internet has democratizing effects”) he devotes a mere paragraph to the digital divide, and seems to minimize it by assuring us that “… the networked information economy is itself an avenue for alleviating maldistribution.”

    After re-reading your review from the point-of-view of someone who hadn’t read the book, I think that your critiques of TWoN were stronger than your general summary in the first paragraph. It could benefit from more detail and examples about the seminal shift from industrial to social Information production that, in my opinion, is the key development that sets the foundation for Benlker’s arguments.

  3. Rubi Romero says:

    Very well said! I like how you connect your personal experience with the book. Especially the examples you used to show that Benkler neglects to mention some aspects that are also important for the reader to know. For example, he didn’t mention that not everybody is able of programming or utilizing advanced software due to the lack of high education and the fact that only a very low percentage (5%) of the population in Brazil has college degrees.
    One suggestion is to find a way to blend your personal examples with the facts that you stated at the end of each paragraph. Another suggestion is to use the introduction to introduce all the subjects you will present. For example, the subject that you wrote about in paragraph fifth was not mentioned on your introduction “The students had less than six years of education. They would not absorb our explanations and would fall asleep while we discussed blogs, the Internet, and Networks”. On paragraph fifth you make an analysis about GM which is a very important point, but without mention it in the introduction, it can be very confusing for the reader. I also think that paragraph seven looks more like the introduction to all the subjects you mentioned in your review. Lastly, remember to point out all the subjects in your conclusion as a closure, for example, you didn’t mention GM as part of the conclusion.
    In regards to the content, I think that all the points you make are very well said and supported by the examples you use about the social program for juveniles. It is true that most of the content of the book is based on what is available here in the United States and in English (which is the main language for software), but this is not a reality in other parts of the world. I really enjoyed reading your review, well done.

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