Punctuated Equilibria

The first chapter of The Wealth of Networks (How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom) by Yochai Benkler was very interesting reading. I am looking forward to reading more.

In an earlier post, I talked about how mass collaboration is only possible for those with a computer and an internet connection. It does not include many in the developing world and those that do have it in most of those countries are not girls. It is hardly inclusive at this stage of the game. Benkler too points out that the “declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population – on the order of a billion people around the globe. (3)” This still leaves over 5 billion people without that means. My guess is that it is primarily those who live at a subsistence level. Why guess? Check the Number of computers per 100 inhabitants by Country. The top five are Switzerland, United States, Sweden, Canada and Australia, while the bottom five are Cambodia, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Chad.

Benkler also says that the marks of what a society’s freedom looks like is based on “how we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us. (7)” If we were to look at women as a segment of any society I wonder if we could use Benkler’s analysis as a reliable test. Let’s look at Switzerland then. Hmmm, women won the right to vote in 1971. 59% of Swiss women are employed while 75% of men are, but that does not tell us if they are seeking employment. Would the numbers be similar for who is making the information? What about Chad then? Women in Chad could vote in 1958. Well before Switzerland. Women in the workforce in Chad? About 44%. I don’t think this is going to work as a test without some heavy duty analysis. Just because women are given the right to vote doesn’t mean they take advantage of it or even have the ability to exercise that right. That is what is so incredibly embarrassing about the latest vote I participated in. Under 60%! Shameful.

What is also touched on in previous posts, as well as posts by classmates, is the idea that these technologies can bring about social change. Benkler says, “The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse.” It won’t just happen. “The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from incumbents’ assaults. (23)” It is fragile and it requires those who are willing to fight for it in order to preserve it. Benkler also adds to that discussion by pointing out that the tension between economics, institutions, laws and technology is dynamic, yet it is never in tension for too long a period and usually finds a kind of equilibrium. I suppose then that we can and should look forward to the change that is coming as a result of the economic “shock” we are now experiencing.

What will we renegotiate? What will we fight for?

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Ideas & Change

Its interesting how one idea can create such profound change. Tapscott and Williams, in Wikinomics, discuss N-Geners as prosumers. File sharing accounts for half the internet traffic they say (I’ll bet most of that is porn, but that is another issue), and this is “signalling that the Net Generation is renegotiating the definitions of copyright and intellectual property.” (52)

N-Gener? I think I gave birth to a couple of those. While I educated them about how stealing is bad, and hitting is bad, and how to respect women (they’re men), and how to be strong and kind all at the same time, they still had no difficulty downloading stuff from the Internet. Games, codes, movies, music, hacking, it is all fair as far as they are concerned. Stealing from the store is never considered, but copying bytes, no problem. As Cory Doctorow points out, “computers copy, that’s what they do.”

Change is not only inevitable, but I for one welcome it. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that one period in history is better than any other, because I think each has it’s own set of challenges, ideologies, pros and cons. Just like the one, we are in now.) I like the whole idea of renegotiating meaning. I am sure that some disagree, but I like that the meaning behind the concept of wife, has changed a bit over the last century. Stagnant water just gets, well, stagnant and undrinkable.

It is painful though, and it has never been without pain. Just one example from the multitudes is the pain that came for the early 19th century handloom weavers. Weavers were unable to support their families as textile manufacturing moved to factories, driving down their profits. I’ll bet that even today most of us cannot afford to pay for hand woven blankets, and the deal at the department store fits into our budget better.

And how about living without all those cheap factory made goods?