Yochai Benkler: An antidote to Andrew Keen

Jason Kottke of kottke.org has been taking some well-deserved time off and having guest writers post things to his blog, and one of the most recent ones was an interview that Joe Turnipseed (aka writer Joel Hernandez) did with thinker Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks. Among other things, Benkler talks about the diversity of voices that the Internet makes possible, and how that can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

In that sense, his comments are a great riposte to the gloomy views of Andrew “the Internet is killing culture” Keen, who has been on a bit of a roadshow since his book came out. There are others who also make great anti-Keen arguments, including David “Everything is Miscellaneous” Weinberger — who did a great one-on-one dismantling of Keen’s viewpoint in the Wall Street Journal not long ago — but Benkler is among the best.

Turnipseed asks about the discussion of Benkler’s book that has been taking place at the website Crooked Timber, and says that his understanding of the author’s arguments was helped by reading some of the commentary and debate at the site. Benkler responds:

“I thought the discussion on Crooked Timber was in fact excellent, as good a discussion as you would get in a thoughtful seminar, whether academic or whenever you get a collection of thoughtful people in a book club.

There should be nothing surprising about this, any more than there should be anything surprising about there being blogs that are utter nonsense.”

Benkler makes the point that the “networked information economy” allows a billion people to produce and communicate information and knowledge, and so it effectively widens the range of viewpoints and knowledge levels that are available — which can be both good and bad.

“The probability that any newspaper, however well-heeled, will be able to put together the kind of legal analytic brainpower that my friend Jack Balkin has put together on his blog, Balkinization, is zero. They can’t afford it.

On the other hand, even the Weekly World News is tame and mainstream by comparison to the quirkiness or plain stupidity some people can exhibit. The range is simply larger. That’s what it means to have a truly diverse public sphere.”

And Benkler’s next comment on the topic seems an almost direct shot across the bow of people such as Keen — and his partner in crime, Nick Carr — who argue that an intellectual and cultural elite should continue to dominate media and culture (for our own good, of course):

“If you want to find evidence of nonsense — as of course it is important to people whose sense of self-worth depends on the special role traditional mass media play in the public sphere — you will easily find it.

If you want to find the opposite, that too is simple. What’s left is to wait and see over time whether one overwhelms the other.”

I would agree with Benkler that the evidence of both is plentiful, and that when it comes to which will win, I am firmly on the optimistic side. As he puts it, his ultimate conclusion in the book was that:

“While the networked public sphere was not the utopia some in the early 1990s would have liked it to be, it was certainly an appreciable and important improvement over the industrial, mass media structure of the public sphere in the century and a half that preceded it.”

The whole interview is well worth a read, and it can be found here.

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