How does the internet change society? The obvious answer is that it "empowers individuals". The cyber-scholarship that has cropped up in recent years all makes this point - with good reason, because it is true. But it overlooks a second dimension: how the internet leads to new forms of collaboration among people.
This is the starting point for Yochai Benkler, a professor at Yale Law School and a pre-eminent thinker about the internet and intellectual property. His is unabashedly a Big Idea: that technology is changing the nature of economic production for "information goods" from an industrial model based on capital to a networked one, characterised by so-called "peer-production".
The argument goes like this. Because the internet makes it easier for people to give their time and knowledge - through blogs, discussion forums and the like - it allows for non-monetary, non-market activities that in the past were difficult to co-ordinate and benefit from. This, in turn, enables far greater media creation and consumption, and even more political participation, than before. This promises to bring about greater social justice - unless the reactionary forces of the establishment (be it big media or big government) misuse the law to protect their interests.
If it sounds like a mouthful, that's because it is. But there is something to it. To understand Benkler's point, consider an example from the media. In the past, to run a radio station required spectrum allocated by the government, a broadcast licence, an expensive transmitter and a recording studio. It meant raising money and hiring lawyers, which almost guaranteed that stations would be run as for-profit businesses. The state of technology in effect determined the economic model, with the result that only the wealthy could communicate messages to large numbers of people over the airwaves. Today, the internet enables anyone to broadcast to the entire world, and to do it for love, not money. "All the means of producing and exchanging information and culture are placed in the hands of hundreds of millions, and eventually billions, of people around the world," Benkler writes.
This presents a threat to established media companies. In response, they are using their wealth and political influence to thwart the development of internet radio by lobbying policy-makers to apply strict copyright rules on the new medium. This happened in America in the 1990s, when an excessive music royalties system put nearly all internet radio stations out of business. And it is happening globally, too: the "broadcast treaty" being debated at the UN's World Intellectual Property Organisation may grant broadcasters new rights, to the detriment of websites.
Such tensions are found in many areas - wherever the "networked information economy" increases the ability of people collectively to create and share things, thus threatening industries based on earlier business models. For instance, open-source software built by online volunteers challenges commercial software firms such as Microsoft, so the companies foment copyright-infringement suits against organisations that use open source in order to thwart the products. Likewise, sharing music online is easier than ever, so record companies push for stricter copyright protections and sue everyone in sight.
In short, the bounty that technology brings is under attack. "We still stand at a point where information production could be regulated so that, for most users, it will be forced back into the industrial model, squelching the emerging model of individual, radically decentralised, and non-market production and its attendant improvements in freedom and justice," Benkler writes. "As economic policy, allowing yesterday's winners to dictate the terms of tomorrow's economic competition would be disastrous. As social policy, missing an opportunity to enrich democracy, freedom, and justice in our society while maintaining or even enhancing our productivity would be unforgivable."
Benkler's book is thus a call for enlightened government policies to resist this protectionism. However, although his descriptions of the benefits of the internet are correct, his conclusions about the extent to which they transform society seem melodramatic, as does his portrayal of the conflict between computer users and corporations. His arguments occasionally succumb to utopianism, if not a peculiar, postmodern form of Marxism. Here is the battle over the means of production and the struggle against a class of existing industrial-era powers; economic forces are the motor of world history (albeit guided by technology), and nothing less than human freedom is at stake.
Like Marx's social revolution, Benkler's technical one promises to bring out man's better nature, forgoing self-interest for the benefit of the community (through sharing open-source software, contributing to Wikipedia, writing blogs, and so on). Although this is true in some circumstances, the medium will probably evolve to embody the characteristics of the society that created it - market forces and all.
That the internet is changing society is understood. Less appreciated is how society is changing the internet. In this respect, Benkler's work masterfully explains the political and economic forces at play, their promises and their threats. Ultimately, his contribution is to shift our view of the network from the individual to the ad-hoc group. For this, his book is of lasting significance.
Kenneth Neil Cukier is a technology and telecoms correspondent for the Economist