Contingency and the “Networked Information Economy”: A Critique of the “Wealth of Networks”

By Olivier Sylvain.

Published by The Technology Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Yochai Benkler is right when he argues, most recently in The Wealth of Networks, that the “networked public sphere” affords a looser, more democratic “platform” for innovation and deliberation than the “one-way, hub-and-spoke structure” of the “mass-media model.” His suggestion, however, that the techniques of meaning production in the emergent technologies themselves vindicate the liberal theory of deliberative democracy is unconvincing to the extent they, in Benkler’s rendering, remain unavailable or unintelligible to whole swaths of the citizenry. By overstating the accessibility of the new technologies, he obfuscates the extant political economy of cultural production. It may now be truer than ever that the decentralized and transparent characteristics of the new platforms allow ideas and information to flow more efficiently and democratically to more people than under the “mass-media model.” It probably also affords more people the opportunity to create and participate in a range of “nonmarket” deliberative processes in public and in private. But these facts do not mean that we are all smarter, or freer, or (with apologies to Adam Smith) better off. The “networked public sphere” is hardly analogous to the lived public sphere in which the putative free flow of ideas itself has a “nonmarket” logic that is contingent on a variety of entrenched economic, social, and cultural arrangements. Until policy leaders develop strategies for expanding the availability or improving the accessibility of the new technologies, the affordances of the “networked public sphere” will accrue only to its wired participants.

Keywords: Benkler, Networked Public Sphere, Cultural Production, Affordances, Communications Regulation

The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp.203-210. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 562.856KB).

Olivier Sylvain

Doctoral Candidate, Communications Program, Columbia University School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

Olivier Sylvain is interested in communications policy and democratic theory. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Fordham University where he teaches telecommunications law and administrative law. He is also a doctoral candidate in the communications program at Columbia University where he is completing research on the political development of the Radio Act of 1927. At Columbia, Olivier taught a two-semester undergraduate “core” course on “Contemporary Civilization,” which included close readings of texts in ethics, political economy, and social theory.

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