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Benkler: We are collaborators, not knaves

Yochai Benkler gave a talk today in reception of his appointment as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Jack Berkman (now deceased) is the father of Myles Berkman, whose family endowed both the Berkman Center (where I am a fellow) and Benkler’s professorial chair.

His talk was titled “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time” and he sets out to show that there is a sea change happening in the study of organizational systems that far better reflects how we actually interact, organize, and operate. He explains that the collaborative movements we generally characterize as belonging to the new internet age (free and open source software, wikipedia) are really just the instantiation of a wider and pervasive, in fact completely natural and longstanding, phenomena in human life.

This is due to how we can organize capital in the information and networked society: We own the core physical means of production as well as knowledge, insight, and creativity. Now we’re seeing longstanding society practices, such as non-hierarchical norm generation and collaboration more from the periphery of society to the center of our productive enterprises. Benkler’s key point in this talk is that this shift is not limited to Internet-based environments, but part of a broader change happening across society.

So how to we get people to produce good stuff? money? prizes? competition? Benkler notes the example of – contributors are not paid yet the community thrives. Benkler hypothesizes that the key is that people feel secure in their involvement with the community: not paying but creating a context where people feel secure in their collaboration in a system. Another example is Benkler attributes their success to ways they have found to assure contributors that when you produce you will be able to control what you produce. Cash doesn’t change hands. The challenge is to learn about human collaboration in general from these web-based examples. In Benkler’s words “replacing Leviathan with a collaborative system.”

Examples outside the web-based world include GM’s experience with it’s Fremont plant. This plant was among the worst performance in the company. GM shut it down for two years and brought it back 85% staffed by the previous workforce, the same union, but reorganized collaboratively to align incentives. This means there are no longer process engineers on the shop floor and direct control over experimentation and flow at the team level is gone. The plant did so well it forced the big three to copy although they did so in less purely collaborative ways, such as retaining competitive bidding. Benkler’s point is that there is a need for long term relationships based on trust. An emphasis on norms and trust, along with greater teamwork and autonomy for workers implies a more complex system with less perfect control than Hobbes’ Leviathan vision. The world changes too quickly for the old encumbered hierarchical model of economic production.

Benkler thinks this leads us to study social dynamics, an open field without many answers yet. He also relates this work to evolutionary biology: from group selection theory of the 50’s to the individualistic conception in Dawkins’ theory of the selfish gene in the 70’s, and now to multi-level selection and cooperation as a distinct driving force in evolution as opposed to the other way around. This opens a vein of research in empirical deviations from selfishness, as a pillar of homo economicus, just as Kahneman and Tversky challenged the twin pillar of rationality.

Benkler’s vision is to move away from the simple rigid hierarchical models toward ones that are richer and more complex and can capture more of our actual behavior, while still being tractable enough to produce predictions and a larger understanding of our world.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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A2K3: Opening Scientific Research Requires Societal Change

In the A2K3 panel on Open Access to Science and Research, Eve Gray, from the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, sees the Open Access movement as a real societal change. Accordingly she shows us a picture of Nelson Mandela and asks us to think about his release from prison and the amount of change that ushered in. She also asks us to consider whether or not Mandela is an international person or a local person. She sees a parallel with how South African society changed with Mandela and the change people are advocation toward open access to research knowledge. She shows a map of countries distorted by the amount of (copyrighted) scientific research publications. South Africa looks small. She blames this on South Africa’s willingness to uphold colonial traditions in copyright law and norms in knowledge dissemination. She says this happens almost unquestioningly, and in South Africa to rise in the research world you are expected to publish in ‘international’ journals – the prestigious journals are not South African, she says (I am familiar with this attitude from my own experience in Canada. The top American journals and schools were considered the holy grail. When I asked about attending a top American graduate school I was laughed at by a professor and told that maybe it could happen, if perhaps I had an Olympic gold medal.) She states that for real change in this area to come about people have to recognize that they must mediate a “complex meshing” of policies: at the university level, and the various government levels, norms and the individual scientist level… just as Mandela had to mediate a large number of complex policies at a variety of different levels in order to bring about the change he did.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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Online Fundraising Recreating Democratic Forums

As November 2008 draws near, the fundraising teams of both presidential campaigns continue to devise new methods for increasing their cash-flow. Articles like “Online GOP is playing Catch-Up,” and Obama’s “Amazing Money Machine” have been hitting headlines as the media continues to compare candidates’ ability to raise funds through digital means. Last month, the Atlantic reported that of the $55 million that Obama raised during February, $45 million of it was collected over the Internet. And the Washington Post recently revealed that the GOP is hiring “technocrats” to aid its e-campaign financing efforts.

Just as the Internet has dictated the course of presidential electoral politics – through email, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and of course blogging – so too, has it affected political fundraising, giving new meaning to “campaign-finance reform.” Fundraising tools are becoming widely accessible to voters online, including: making donations by the click of a button, signing up for a subscription model, or establishing one’s own fundraising page, as Obama’s campaign has successfully done. Other examples of how the Internet has helped candidates rake in the cash? Representative Ron Paul set a GOP fundraising record through overwhelming support from the Internet community tied to his commemoration of Guy Fawkes Day; and the online gambling community helped fuel Senator Dodd’s Presidential aspirations by playing games of online poker, providing his campaign with more money in a year, than it had received since 1997. As those at iStockAnalyst recently noted, “In general, online contributions offer two things TV spots and phone banks cannot: an interactive relationship between the contributor and the candidate and an easy way to donate small amounts.”

Bottom line: It’s not only efficient, it’s easy, and anyone can do it. Web sites such as,, and FastTrack Fundraising, are allowing citizens other than presidential candidates and their “online political operatives” to gain access to public funding. The trend of online fundraising has the potential to, as Yochai Benkler would say, “decentralize democratic discourse.” By providing an accessible alternative to the top-down hierarchy of political fundraising, web-based fundraising tools are giving more people a voice, and the resources, to participate in democratic forums.

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