Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0: Benkler says networks can outperform Leviathan

BY MATT HUTCHINS

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Prof. Yochai Benkler delivered his chair lecture in the Casperson Room

Yochai Benkler delivered a lecture Tuesday night in the Casperson room on the occasion of his recognition by Dean Kagan as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies. Professor Benkler joined the faculty in 2007 as Berkman Professor and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Prior to joining Harvard’s faculty he served as the Joseph M. Field Professor of Law at Yale Law and as Director of the Engleberg Center for Innovation Law and Policy at NYU Law. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning book “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom,” which describes the political and economic significance of the social networks which are possible on the Internet and emphasizes the importance of commons-based production, such as Wikipedia. In her introduction, Dean Kagan quipped that the “academic commons” referred to Benkler as a “consummate teacher and intellectual.” Benkler’s lecture was entitled “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Halftime.”

Professor Benkler began by posing a number of questions regarding how to harness the creative commons as a social and economic force for change and “move beyond Wikipedia and the Net toward replacing Leviathan with cooperative human systems.” Benkler presented the U.S. auto industry as an archetype for the rise and fall of the twentieth century’s scientific management systems. He described the old model of organization, from Taylorism to Fordism and through Williamson, as presupposing that workers want to rest and employers want them to be more efficient, and the organization existing as a coercive system to minimize the worker’s opportunity to sap the company’s resources. Managers, he said, cannot be overseen directly, and so their motivation was aligned with the firm through monetary incentives. The new model, typified by the production methods of Toyota, rejects the narrow as sumption that people avoid work when possible, and instead assumes that people enjoy working together and being productive when they can collaborate on a product they believe in.

Benkler criticized the self-interested rational actor model, relied upon by economists, as being too narrow to account for the multiple factors which are always impacting the decisions and actions of individuals. In practice, people in every culture are motivated by a range of desires which defy description under such a simple model, especially considerations of what is right, fair, and normal. The creative commons, once maligned as a fad, has demonstrated that loosely coupled, dynamic organizational systems can allow those other human motivations to drive creation and incorporate learning into the social system. Benkler said that the increasing rate of innovation has made ex ante planning in organizations impossible, and that the creative commons model will enable organizations to experiment, adopt, and adapt.

More than simply advocating the adoption of the creative commons model, Benkler said that the success of this model should guide the development of a new model of human behavior which discards the narrow assumptions of human behavior which were the foundation of twentieth century economic models. “The task is to develop a general and flexible framework for analyzing human systems of all forms.” Such a model, he said, would follow a middle ground between the rich analysis of context found in historical studies and the generalized abstractions of pure theory.

After the conclusion of his remarks, professors asked him about the application of a new theory of collaborative work to the law and the legal academy. Benkler said that in an academic field such as law, where scholarship has been traditionally individualistic, it may be difficult to transition to a more collaborative model of work. In the physical sciences, on the other hand, where collaboration is the rule, communes-based models are actively being explored. The law itself, on the other hand, is a system which enables some things while disabling others, and will be used by commons-based organizations to the extent it is helpful and ignored where it is a hindrance.

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