apostle of a new faith “whose miracles can be seen in front of people”

August 24th, 2008 by kc

In April 2007 I was invited to David Isenberg’s Freedom to Connect (F2C) conference to participate on a panel about Yochai Benkler‘s new book, Wealth of Networks (amazon, pdf chapters). In Wealth of Networks, Yochai first observes that two phenomena — communication and computation — are becoming affordable and ubiquitous at the same time that they are each becoming fundamental as input as well as output to our economic systems. He then provides empirical evidence [wikipedia] that this ubiquitous availability of information technology (communication and computational resources, or in math speak, links and nodes) among actors enables forms of collaboration so enormously effective as to offer an alternative to traditional models of production, i.e., market-based or government-backed systems.

Yochai emphasizes that highly distributed non-proprietary production is unlikely to — nor should it — displace market production. On the contrary, he argues that coexistence of the two modes will increase individual freedom, which is the goal of markets as well as democracy. Cooperative economic systems have always co-existed with competitive economic systems, and will continue to do so. But ubiquitous connectivity induces an inflection point on the economic landscape because it upsets the dominance of competitive, proprietary production of knowledge and culture, in terms of both economic return and individual autonomy. While property and markets enhance freedom along some dimensions, they constrain freedom in non-market contexts, often in disguise. So Yochai repeatedly reminds us to evaluate systems (whether political, economic, or technology) by gauging the extent to which a system allows individual can be the author of his or her life. Yochai thus offers an illuminating reality check regarding the impact of the Internet on our understanding of our economic selves. Poetically phrased in an amazon review, “If Marx and his Communist Manifesto were the tipping point for communism, this book is the tipping point for communal moral capitalism.” The following is a more coherent version of my remarks at F2C following his excellent talk about the book.

I was happy to see Yochai’s book come out because a few years ago I read his 2001 white paper, “Property, Commons, and the First Amendment: Toward a Core Common Infrastructure” at a time when I was struggling to identify ways that academics could help study if not help solve problems of the Internet. (Back before the Internet drove the phone system to bankruptcy, Bell Labs did this sort of thing for the country, and the world.) I had recently surveyed a few dozen engineers building and operating Internet infrastructure, asking “What are your top problems with operating and engineering the network?” I got over a hundred answers which fell along four dimensions: security, scalability, sustainability, and stewardship. Moreover, virtually all of their unsolved problems, even those seemingly mostly technical, were stalled due to economic or policy limitations, rather than anything related to technology. (Well, of course, they were engineers — they solved the technology problems..)

Since CAIDA’s research agenda has focused on the analysis of empirical data on operational networks, I spent more time navigating economic and policy issues than was good for me. So my first reaction to Yochai’s idea to build a communication commons was “Great! A relevant public network to study! How can we build that?” So I read the whole book.

Consistent with the argument that ubiquitous communication infrastructure allows individual users to collaborate on world-improving projects, Yochai’s appealing image of this new commons infrastructure includes operating with no institutional or financial support from the federal government: a we-the-people-who-build-mesh-networks-for-fun produce a public network commons, owned by “us”. It sounds elegantly congruent with the Internet’s architectural roots: end site control (aka freedom). Unfortunately, neither the technology nor the economics of today’s infrastructure could support his utopian ideal. First, we lack the technology needed for mesh networks to operate without a backbone. That is, we don’t know to route a billion (or even ten million) nodes without some required structure in the middle to achieve acceptable routing performance. In fact, the current Internet protocol does not even have enough addresses to build a ubiquitous network. Unfortunately, the replacement protocol (IPv6), which does have enough addresses but uses the same unscalable routing architecture, is not gaining a lot of traction in the current competitive ecosystem, where profits for innovation — such as needed upgrades to addressing and routing architectures — are driven to zero by design. Yochai’s dream has a lot of reality in its way.

Yochai does admit that his conclusions about the relative power of cooperative production are not obviously applicable to the communications infrastructure itself, since communications devices are rival goods (aka atoms), leaving less certainty that a commons will deliver the required resources. He leaves open the possibility of technology changes, e.g., wireless mesh networking advances, that could increase the relative performance of commons-oriented communications policies from the perspective of individual autonomy. In the meantime, he enthusiastically focuses on the fact that for non-rival information goods which serve as both inputs and outputs to production processes, a commons model provides substantially greater security through an increasingly robust source of new information inputs and greater autonomy regarding their use. No argument there.

Another thing I liked about Yochai’s book was his empirical grounding of arguments, as rare in the field of communications policy as it is in network science due to the difficulties in data acquisition. Yochai’s measurement problem is as formidable as that of network scientists, since he has few analytic tools to determine that cooperative means of production outperform other means for science, news, journalism, entertainment, education, and religion. Like security and sustainability, we haven’t even really agreed on what we’re supposed to be measuring. Would our bank accounts be safer if linux had 95% of the desktop market? Will people get bored with Wikipedia updating?

But the lack of good data to resolve such debates only makes Yochai’s case stronger, because uncertainty regarding which model is better for a given product renders essential that the playing field is level, rather than tilted away from the emerging mode of production by natural incumbent control of the competitive landscape. Eloquently paraphrased by one of my favorite government program managers, “So that means, either the feds should be explicitly promoting open source with tax dollars, or at least get out of its way.”

Yochai compellingly explains why he wants to see a core commons infrastructure. It turns out that the academic sector has a surplus of what is needed to build such a commons (bandwidth, switching, students), since they currently have a dearth of what a commons could provide: data to support a field of network science. A commons project would not only facilitate this trade, but leave enough institutional space for experimentation with the social and economic practices of networked information production that Yochai argues is essential to the health of its institutional ecology. Yochai has an agenda, to be sure, but the scientific agenda is “to be sure” as well, so I’m a huge fan of Yochai’s outlook.

“About 30 years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”
– Charles Darwin to W.W. Bates on Nov. 22, 1860

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