Crooked Timber is running an online seminar of Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (the book is available online here). I only read the introduction to the book, but the argument seems like an interesting one: the Internet enables the formation of new social networks that provide opportunities for productive behavior and political mobilization. Larry Lessig and others have been making this argument for a long time now – the internet levels social inequalities. Benkler presents it again after years of refining experience. Henry Farrell and others at Crooked Timber offer some interesting commentary that is worth a look.
One comment that grabbed my attention came from economist John Quiggin. He examines more closely the idea that the Internet generates opportunities for social production that exist largely outside of the market (e.g. blogging; open source software design). The Internet is essentially a new social structure that enables a third form of organizing apart from markets or hierarchies. Rather than being driven by competition and monetary incentives, the new social production occurs because people find alternative avenues to cooperate and share knowledge, which is rewarding in itself. Quiggin notes the policy implications:
The assumptions we have had about the competitive nature of innovation are, therefore, undersupported in the new environment in which we find ourselves. If governments want to encourage the maximum amount of innovation in social production then they need to de-emphasize competition and emphasize creativity and cooperation.
Quiggin's comment and Benkler's book, more generally, (which, again, I have not read completely) bring up a good insight, but it's not completely original. All of this talk about the new forms of social production is very reminiscent of the excited discussion about "network forms of organization" that have been going on in org. theory for more than a decade. In fact, Quiggin's comment summarizes much of what Woody Powell argues in his 1990 article "Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization." In that article Powell enthusiastically portrays another new form of economic production, which he also sees as distinct from the market-hierarchy dichotomy. People organize in coalitions, alliances, or other network hybrids that foster cooperation, trust, and, eventually, innovation.
My irritation, if I have one, is that both Powell and the new Internet network folks seem obsessed about the technology without really theorizing the form of social action. Replace "Internet networks" with "network forms of organization," but you still haven't really gotten to the bottom of what's going on here. We're still only framing an enduring part of social and economic life in a limited historical purview.
Relational networks have always played a part in determining the avenues and incentives for economic production. The technologies may change, but the basic form of interaction is much the same now as it was a hundred years ago when Tocqueville observed Americans engaging in civic life. Trying to take the networks out of economic activity is like trying to think about a complex organism without a circulation system.
Of course, there are some new things about internet networks, but let's not get carried away in projecting future outcomes. As Eszter notes, the networks of the web overlap with existing social structures, like class hierarchies. These existing social networks map onto the emerging networks. The winners of other economic markets become the winners in the new web of social production. This is one reason that many of the top dogs in the open source community were already elites in the software programming community. The open source movement perhaps hasn't flattened hierarchies as much as we'd like to think; rather, it's just created new outlets for their expression. This all leads us to the question, what's so new about these new networks of social production?