News, Information and the Wealth of Networks

moderator: William C. Uricchio, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Yochai Benkler, Internet Law Program, Harvard Law School, Harvard University
author: Henry Jenkins, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Feb. 21, 2011,   recorded: September 2006,   views: 164
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Each speaker examines the widespread change unleashed by digital technology from his respective field. At the same time, these authors find quite a bit of common ground.

Yochai Benkler describes how the spread of computers and connectivity - to perhaps 600 million people worldwide - has shifted the economics of production. It has, says Benkler, “created a new condition where the most important inputs into the core economic activities of the most advanced economies are widely distributed in the population: computation and communication resources, human creativity, intuition, experience and motivation.” Individuals on their own or with collaborators can act without requiring formal authority or central management.

What Benkler characterizes as commons-based peer production creates both competition and new market opportunities. The BBC is now taking advantage of individuals who offer unique content, such as cell phone images from inside the London Underground following recent terrorist bombings.

This new freedom to post material for the rest of the world to view has major ramifications for democracy. Benkler recalls the Internet-based attack on flawed Diebold voting machines, which led to legal judgment -- albeit a year too late to affect election returns. The production and distribution of knowledge and culture also has implications for human welfare and development, with open source publishing of bioinformatics and medical and agricultural innovations. “We are beginning to practice new ways of being free and equal human beings,” says Benkler, though any gains will be “subject to a global and persistent political and regulatory battle.”

Henry Jenkins discerns convergence, and sometimes collision, between “top down” and “bottom up” media. We live in a world “where every story, image, sound, relationship, and brand is going to be conducted across the maximum number of media channels, legally or illegally, corporate or amateur,” he says. This participatory culture engages in a give and take with traditional, centralized powers. The grassroots absorbs stories or consumes material provided by the mass media, then filters or comments on it – e.g., MoveOn.org’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” video contest. Mass media takes the grassroots content, and attempts to sell it back to users, or generates “astroturf”—fake grassroots material. Says Jenkins, “Some say we live in a world where five companies control media in our lives. Others say we live in a world where there are no gatekeepers. I say, ‘Yes, that’s true’ to both.”

In this “apprenticeship stage,” we are acquiring skills in participatory culture and collective intelligence, first as fans, bloggers and gamers. But this will “translate to new forms of activism in a rapid way.” Jenkins cites how amateur photos, songs, and cartoons during Hurricane Katrina helped shape public opinion about the disaster response. The final season of “West Wing” engendered political engagement in the blogosphere that straddled party lines, “suggesting ways out of purely partisan elections,” says Jenkins. But he warns of a participation gap: “If you live in a world with 10 minutes of connectivity with slow bandwidth, you have unequal access.”

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