Yochai Benkler, others at Harvard map current and future Internet

Harvard’s world-renowned
Berkman Center for Internet & Society
is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a conference called
Berkman@10.
I’ll report here on today’s sessions, which were organized as a fairly
conventional symposium (although as loosely as one could run it with
450 attendees). Tomorrow will be set up as an unconference, where the
audience defines most of the topics and self-organizes into
small-group discussions.

Whither peer production–wither peer production?

The Internet is not monolithic–as speaker after speaker today
recounted–so it’s not fair to expect an organization studying it to
be monolithic either. The Berkman Center is diverse to the point of
being hard to characterize, as I’ll detail
later,
but one theme that echoed through the day was the collaborative
production of value, or “peer production” as the economically-minded
like to call it.

Yochai Benkler, author of key Internet analyses such as
The Wealth of Networks
(available in both printed form and as a
PDF)
and
Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm,
set out his stake near the beginning of the day when he called on the
Center to move from creating tools to examining social change, such as
what it’s like for dissidents around the world to be able to work
together.

Wikipedia is a central piece of evidence in Benkler’s case–along with
Linux, a connection I’ll explore
later–and
also forms Exhibit A in the recent book The Future of the Internet
(And How to Stop It)
by Jonathan Zittrain, cofounder of the
Berkman Center and keynoter at today’s conference. (I won’t cover the
keynote because I have already

reviewed the book at length
.)

So it’s quite in keeping that Jimmy Wales joined Benkler in an
afternoon session at the conference. Benkler laid out the traits
distinguishing both the process and product of peer production from
what we’re used to getting in the market: peer production is
unpredictable, unstable, loose, and people-driven. Wikipedia matches
those criteria so well that Wales admitted its fate is still up in the
air.

David P. Reed, a key Internet researcher, described how
science–another, very different culture of peer production–has been
corroded during the past few decades by commercialization and
over-regulation (specifically, the various Offices of Research
Integrity that lobbyists have forced scientists to answer to). He
then asked whether Wikipedia’s turn for regulation by government will
come. (Details were added to this paragraph on May 16 after a
conversation with Reed.)

Wales didn’t address the precise question, but admitted that “humans
will eventually screw up Wikipedia just as we manage to screw up
everything else,” yet promised to keep it true to its mission as long
he can.

The challenge for peer production, according to Zittrain, Benkler, and
Wales, is to avoid seizing up and imposing new controls when things go
wrong. Instead, one must learn to deal with the damage through side
channels.

Money is a secondary question. Benkler pointed out tanies
now pay employees to contribute to peer-produced products (Linux,
where most development is now done by the employees of various
companies, provides an obvious example) and said the ultimate impact
of this trend is unknown. Possibly, the current in-rush of volunteer
labor is a temporary phase in the evolution of peer production. In any
case, we should carefully examine the process so that the projects can
remain fair and keep people motivated when some are paid and some are
not.

Besides production for money and production for fun, I noticed another
motivation for contributions when Wales mentioned that India has
become an increasing source of Wikipedia pages as computers and
Internet access spread there. I sense that regional and cultural pride
can drive many efforts–the feeling that “if that city over there can
do it, why can’t we?” This suggestion shows the need for models, which
I’ll describe in
another section.

The conscious commons

Although Wikipedia was described by conference participants from many
angles–as an amazing example of volunteerism, a triumph of people’s
ability to resolve conflicts, and so on–I think one key trait has
gone unremarked: Wikipedia has reached such a high level of value that
participants are willing to put its success above any other
considerations. No matter how much someone desires to express
opinions, they know that fighting hard enough to damage the entire
venture would be counter-productive. So people usually settle among
themselves. In other words, they are conscious about
protecting their commons.

Think, as a metaphor, of a town commons where people not only graze
their cattle, but water the grass and spread around the manure so that
it’s properly fertilized.

As civilization develops, we tend to get lazy about maintaining our
commons. We discover the benefits of turning functions over to large
companies (they gain efficiencies from scale and from the use of
professionals) or to governments (who provide transparency and
equitable distribution of resources, when done right).

This trend is not limited to advanced economies. Esther Dyson reported
that, after she encouraged Internet users in one developing African
nation to share wireless networks with their neighbors, someone
complained to her that it was up to the government to reduce costs and
provide wider Internet access.

But nowadays, sophisticated manufacturing methods reduce gains from
scaling, and the benefits of training ordinary people to perform
useful roles outranks the value of employing a small professional
elite over and over. In fact, Benkler mentioned that learning is a key
part of peer production and a driver of its success.

Meanwhile, transparency has become more available to all actors,
including governments, through communications networks.

So we’ve started to turn back to ourselves in order to support what we
hold in common. The modern equivalents of barn raisings are the groups
in the 1990s who came together to wire their local schools (before
WiFi made that less necessary), or people who made the news recently
by installing solar panels on each other’s homes.

Most notable, for the sheer size of the effort, is the
self-mobilization of communities, both locally and nationally, in the
wake of the Hurricane Katrina floods and the failure of government
response. My own synagogue has sent two building teams to the New
Orleans area over the past two months; hundreds of others have made
similar donations.

The remaining problem to solve is the equitable distribution of
resources mentioned earlier. For this, peer production and the
conscious commons have to go global. We need to feel an immediate
connection to all creatures around the globe–and that leads to the
most audacious proposal that came up at the Berkman Center today.

What will a Harvard for six billion people look like?

This bold discussion began with a taunt lobbed into the arena from a
surprising corner, former FCC chair Reed Hundt. In my opinion, Hundt’s
tenure in the mid-1990s stood out for the FCC’s recognition that its
landscape would be overwhelmingly changed by the evolution of networks
and the media transferred across them, but in the end proved too timid
and compromised to pursue the implications of these insights.

There was no timidity, though, to Hundt’s proposal that well-endowed
universities such as Harvard help the six billion people who are now
deprived of the education they need to make a decent living.

Charles Nesson, a famous attorney and cofounder of the Berkman Center,
picked up the tune without missing a beat. He talked of the enormous
amount of high-quality online material that Harvard is making
available. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences recently voted to
open access to all scholarly articles,
and the law school soon
followed suit.

(Ironically, Harvard is one of the few Boston-area colleges that
doesn’t allow the public into its brick-and-mortar libraries. This
policy is understandable though, because to make them open would
overwhelm them with the throngs of odd creatures that circulate among
the literate classes who inhabit Cambridge.)

Dyson then interrupted with an astute distinction between content and
helping people to teach themselves, a goal that is people-intensive
and requires a lot of side activities such as making sure children
have enough to eat.

Nesson countered by saying that the goal was not to provide sterile
content, but to provide content that would stimulate children’s
interest and sense of play, which in turn would lead to a peer
production of education.

As an aside, Dyson mentioned an invention she saw at Microsoft’s
Bangalore facility. Using software that allows a USB port to be
multiplexed, one computer through a single USB port can support up to
eight mice. Thus, eight children can play a game or manipulate items
on a screen. This doesn’t turn a Windows system into an XO (One Laptop
Per Child) network, but it’s an advance for needy communities.

Designing for cooperation

There was much worth retelling in Benkler and Wales’s session,
although a good deal of it can be found in other works of theirs.
Benkler pointed out that our economic system is designed around the
notion of human beings as “selfish rationalists,” but that no society
ever studied has many people who actually behave that way. He said at
most 30% are primarily motivated by material rewards.

Now, as we know, the people so motivated can be extraordinarily
productive, creating some of the most important technological changes
in history. However, we also know that a large part of that 30% lie,
cheat, and steal. Anyway, Benkler seems ready to try something
different.

His talk involved questions instead of answers–a research agenda
rather than a curriculum. He suggested we draw on the disciplines of
organizational sociology and experimental economics. He laid out the
intrinsic motivations we want to encourage for peer
production–solidarity, empathy, trust, fairness–and started an
exploration of extrinsic motivations.

The extrinsic motivations include rewards and punishments, along with
transparency. The latter leads in turn to reputation systems, which
embody twin goals: control (so others know whom to trust) and
motivation (because contributors expect future rewards).

Wales, in a private conversation, demonstrated the cooperative spirit
in his comparison of
Wikia Search
(which I described in
an article yesterday)
with traditional search engines. He said we tend to place too much
faith in algorithms. Good algorithms are certainly
valuable–particularly in searching for the long tail, as when someone
knows only a few phrases in a book or song–but don’t have to be
sophisticated enough to prevent all gaming of the search engine.

“If the community decides something is spam, they can simply block it
outright,” he said. You don’t have to insist on creating a search
algorithm so smart that it pushes spam down in the results list.

In his presentation, Wales said that a majority vote is not enough to
ensure quality content. If only 70% of editors like a Wikipedia page,
something is still wrong with it. Therefore, discussion continues
until everybody is happy except a few unreasonable people who are
usually disruptive in other ways as well. He said that
unanimity is not the goal, but consensus.

His contrast of unanimity and consensus struck home with me, because
the exact same distinction (using the same words) is made by community
organizers in the international network created by the historic
Industrial Areas Foundation
created by Saul Alinsky in 1940. As a volunteer for a local community
organization, I know its power to build consensus as well as its
success at building power.

And it’s worth nothing that Barack Obama spent years as a community
organizer with the IAF, while Hillary Clinton wrote a thesis on it as
a young student (and turned down a job offer from Saul Alinsky).
Someday, community organizing experience could well become a
prerequisite for a management job in any business or government
position.

Seeding and modeling

Another aspect of peer production escaped discussion today. Zittrain
mentioned in passing that Wikipedia began as a set of comment forums
on Nupedia, which had reached the limits of its growth with seven
articles from paid experts. Small though this starting point was, I
believe these seven seeds were critical to show what could be done and
give volunteers models to emulate.

Consider also that a worldwide, Internet-based development effort on
an operating system could not begin (although all the variants of BSD
were produced by volunteers using more traditional team methods) until
Linus Torvalds seeded the effort by publicizing his budding kernel.

So peer production requires models. Not coincidentally, Dyson said
that social change also requires what she called models for
courage
. An Asian journalist from the audience claimed that most
Chinese Internet users think government censorship is a good
thing. People will push for change–but most of them to see someone
else start.

The dilemma of openness

“Open” was probably the most frequently uttered word of the day.
Nesson, in his opening remarks, chanted of “open talk, open access,
open education…”

But the problem, as I explained
eight years ago,
is that openness, in a context of unequal power, just puts more power
in the hands of those who already hold it–those with the guns, the
funds, or other ways of controlling the public agenda.

In small ways, blogging and efforts such as the
Sunlight Foundation
(represented by its head Ellen Miller at the conference)
take power out of the hands of its current possessors and distribute
it more widely among the public. The Internet can also help
democratize fund-raising, as both the Ron Paul and Barack Obama
campaigns proved. But there is still a lot more that governments and
large institutions can do with information than ordinary people.

The Berkman Center broadens

Although Berkman’s ten-year anniversary formed the occasion for this
conference, celebrating the anniversary was not its main goal. Thus, I
saved a description of the Berkman Center for the end of this article.

As I mentioned earlier, the center far from monolithic. It is a
conglomeration of many people, both lawyers and non-lawyers, who study
the Internet and add their efforts to empower its users.

Legal studies of the Internet were by no means a new field when the
Berkman Center was founded. In fact, current director Terry Fisher
says such studies were already a “fad.” The Berkman Center is
distinguished in many ways, such as by its independence (although it
has corporate sponsors in addition to Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman’s
gift) and the caliber of its professors and fellows.

But in my opinion, the most salient contribution of the Berkman Center
is its devotion to new research instead of pure theory. (Another such
research center is
Do Tank.)

At the conference, one example of this valuable approach was a
fascinating visualization of blogs in Iran–the fourth largest
blogging community in the world–and of which sites are blocked by the
Iranian government. As one would expect, most blocked sites are
written by secularists, reformists, and ex-patriots.

It’s also impressive, however, that most sites by these groups are
allowed through the government’s filters. Too much blocking, as the
Berkman researcher said, would lead to a loss of legitimacy for the
government.

Among the major research and production activities at Berkman are:

  • The OpenNet Initiative–a tracking system that reports government
    censorship worldwide

  • Global Voices Online–a blog for people who previously had no way of
    reaching the public outside their nations

  • StopBadware–a service that recognizes infected web sites and (in
    cooperation with Google) interpolates warnings when users try to visit
    them

These projects go far beyond the field of law, and in fact, law school
head Elena Kagan announced at the conference that the center was
moving outside the law school to become a general Harvard institution.

The Berkman Center also exemplifies the openness they speak
about. Long-term and temporary associates mingle with invited guests
and passers-by. If you’re in the Boston area and are interested in
where digital networks and media are heading–technically as well as
politically–Berkman events are among the best places to spend your
time.

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