First, I should note that The Wealth Of Networks is terribly edited. Given that Benkler thanked his editor for his Herculean work at the beginning of the book, I can only imagine the state it started in; as it is, it ended with glaring grammatical errors, including using "effect" when he meant "affect" and "wave" when he meant "waive". (I'll provide specific examples sometime tomorrow.) Editing, apparently, is a craft that is only noticed in its absence. I didn't realize this until I read The Wealth of Networks. By the time I was done with the book, I was copyediting every page.
None of this mentions the stylistic errors, which are rife. Benkler uses the first-person singular pronoun once, or possibly twice, in the whole book; its use is jarring. The rest is passively voiced and all the words are sesquipedalian. Nothing's wrong with inconsistency in style, when deployed artfully, but it feels more like an oversight here than a deliberate plan.
Those of you who've read the book will perhaps object to all this cavilling over style. Again, it's only noticeable because it's so bad; normally I would almost ignore the style and get to the meat of the argument. It was hard to do so here.
Benkler's argument is quite systematic and nearly has the force of pure logic. His claim -- propounded over a decade's worth of papers and synthesized in this book -- is that the new economics of the Internet fundamentally change deep parts of our culture. Cheap communication allows projects like Linux and the Wikipedia to emerge and more to the point work very well. Each of us can invest trivial amounts of our time and money, yet the end result is something much greater than any of us could have expected. Person A links to person B on his website, and lots of person A's follow along with their own person B's. Pretty soon there's enough information -- from our trivial little links alone -- that Google can come through and aggregate that information into a profoundly useful information-retrieval tool. Millions of people click on star ratings on Amazon, and pretty soon we can all get highly accurate suggestions about books we might like. I copyedit the Wikipedia, and so do hundreds of thousands of others; before long, the Wikipedia competes with Britannica.
Benkler's task is to take his understanding of what makes all this stuff tick, and think through the consequences. What does it mean for democracy when people can communicate cheaply? We're starting to get a taste of the answer with blogs. The media available for political discourse before the Net came around -- like television -- were passive. Someone else produced a lot of content at great cost, and pushed it out to a lot of stupid devices that couldn't really do anything interesting; televisions are "dumb terminals" for video. Now we can all be publishers for no cost, and the devices are smart enough that we can talk back and start conversations. Yes, we're still getting much of our news from old-media stalwarts like the New York Times, but the medium allows us to blog about it, post comments to others' blogs, and search around and see what others have said about it. All of this is possible because the publishing tools are getting easier, because communication is cheap, and because computers are increasingly available to everyone. We now have media that permit and encourage conversation; the old broadcast media never did.
In a world where communication is no longer passive, and where you don't need a multimillion-dollar television studio to get your ideas out to the world, democracy changes radically. For one thing, the fringes suddenly have a voice that they didn't have before. It's obvious, just from thinking for a moment about how mass media work, that they serve inoffensive pabulum to the least common denominator. If you can choose to broadcast a show that might offend people or upset them (say, displaying images from Abu Ghraib), or else broadcast the latest news about Brad and Jen, you will choose the latter in a heartbeat. The point in mass media is not to publish the widest array of views, but to maximize revenue. Maximizing revenue means appealing to the broadest mass of people, which in turn means being as inoffensive as possible.
It's not difficult to see that mass-market media incentives are quite different than the incentives that a democracy should strive for. Commercial interests are not our interests, orthodox capitalist training to the contrary. So what happens when media become non-commercial, like blogs? Suddenly you have millions of people who can get their ideas out to the world, and lots of things happen. For instance, it becomes clear to people that there's more than just the Republican Party and the Democratic Party -- or even Republicans, Democrats, Greens and Libertarians. The whole tone of the culture changes. Biting commentary gets airtime. We become active. We argue, like people in a democracy are supposed to.
All of this is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. As Benkler makes very clear, it's kind of inevitable. The axiom is basically this: people will do more of what's easy for them, and less of what's difficult. With the cost of communications technology now negligible, lots of things become easy.
The objection that not everyone is a blogger is irrelevant. It may in fact be true that the majority of Americans are passive dullards. Even if it is, the fact remains that there is a new set of technologies that let many of us do things that we couldn't have done before, and it would take willful blindness to believe that this leaves democracy unchanged.
Benkler builds out the argument in considerably more detail and considerably more verbosity. He wants you to understand what is likely to come out of all of this, what the challenges are, and where the promise may lead us. It's a tremendous synthesis.
Alas, it will take people like Larry Lessig to make Americans understand this promise; Benkler has confined himself to academia. As I may have mentioned, I've heard a lot of trashing on Lessig recently -- that he's a shallow thinker who wasn't even a good enough lawyer to win Eldred. I've heard Benkler's book described as a landmark that people will be discussing in 20 years. Allow me to disagree. I think Code is a much more important work, both for the ground it cleared and for its rhetorical power. I think Lessig's later book Free Culture could actually get people storming the gates of Disney, whereas Benkler will never.
More to the point, Benkler's work seems like much more of a look back than a plan for forward motion. If you already use Linux and have internalized its lessons, you hardly need the theory that Benkler gives you. If you have really thought about the Wikipedia, then you can skip over that chunk of his book. A copy of Code and a thorough understanding of the GPL will probably give you 90% of what The Wealth of Networks does.
In twenty years, The Wealth of Networks will stand as a very nice description of the world as it stood in 2006. Code will mark the beginning of a movement. As someone who is ensconced in that movement, I believe that everyone should have a copy of The Wealth of Networks on his shelf and a copy of Code in his pocket.