Oct 20, 2009

So you say you want a revolution

Are you ready for a revolution? Benkler seems to be. In this week's readings, he seems to pose nothing less than a revolution of our media institutions from market-driven transactions to non-market activities. For my part, I remain skeptical.

Benkler states that with the networked information environment, the barriers to media production have been lowered such that we can all participate in the production process. However, Benkler doesn't seem to address the issue of how to get over the digital divide. He proclaims the grand potential of the "networked information environment", but overlooks the fact that many people in the developing world still don't have access to basic telephone service or a consistent food supply, let alone computers with networking capabilities.

He also envisions the potential for non-market actors to drive activity. But of the sites that you regularly visit, how many are truly independent, and how many are the sites of traditional, market-based institutions in the hunt for profit? His view of peer popularity taking the gatekeeper function of traditional media also doesn't seem plausible to me. To an extent we've seen this, with the "viral video phenomenon" such that even long-standing corporate institutions are trying to get into the viral marketing game. But where do we go to watch viral videos? Youtube, which is owned by Google, which is a out to make a profit.

Benkler's emphasis on the information that gets passed through networks, however, is something I can get on board with. Even though we're well into the Internet revolution, and using the internet has become a natural part of most of our lives (at least, a natural part of the lives of those of us in class), I still marvel at how Google can help you answer just about any question. When do classes start in January? I could try to navigate through American's website to find the academic calendar, or I could just google, "American university academic calendar 2009-2010". Bam, there's the info.

But while I'm more accustomed to thinking about the internet as a huge repository of information, I rarely think about the people behind that information. That is, I rarely think of the network behind that information. And Benkler's emphasis on the network struck a chord with me. It's true that the glory of the internet is not so much in the information available on it. Because if you think about it, that information exists or doesn't exist, whether it's on the internet or not. Rather, it's the people that bring that information to the internet, those nodes in the network that constantly supply and update and edit that information that makes the internet such a valuable resource. Without those constant connections to people, the internet is essentially just a big, un-dynamic encyclopedia.

I think Benkler captures a lot of the potential for transforming our society heralded by the Internet era. And I think what he proposes should be considered carefully and deliberately, as he notes the potential social implications for such a revolution. But he doesn't actually detail how such a revolution could be achieved, and until he does, I'll remain skeptical.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. While I was fascinated by his argument that media will become driven by non-market forces, I doubt it will happen as well. As you mentioned pretty much all of the sites that allow user driven content are owned by major companies like Google owning Youtube, NewsCorp owning MySpace, etc. Those companies are looking to make a profit off of your free labor. Should we just go along with this? Should we try to set up our own sites so we profit from our media activities or should we find some way to distribute them so that no one monetarily profits? The last one seems unlikely as most people don't want to work for nothing and there is always someone looking to cash in. The market hasn't really been transformed and it doesn't seem as though it will be any time soon. However, I think it could be beneficial to the diversity and plurality of media outlets if there is more self-regulated user content (on your own website instead of say Youtube) because then you are in control and not edited by someone else, thus in theory creating more ideas and viewponts for public consumption. However as we know, what is good in theory, doesn't always work out so well in practice.