Friday, June 01, 2007

How the Internet Enhances Autonomy

[Part Four in a series: Reading Benkler's Wealth of Networks.]

We’ve seen that a networked information environment can enhance citizen autonomy in two key respects:
  • It empowers citizens to express their creativity through the production of social media (from amateur film and music “mashups” to critical blogging).

  • Better access to information (including “niche” information) enables citizens to consider a wider range of alternatives, and so make better informed decisions.

Benkler (pp. 138-9) elaborates on the first point:
In the industrial economy and its information adjunct, most people live most of their lives within hierarchical relations of production, and within relatively tightly scripted possibilities after work, as consumers…

The emergence of radically decentralized, nonmarket production provides a new outlet for the attenuation of the constrained and constraining roles of employees and consumers… We are seeing the emergence of the user as a new category of relationship to information production and exchange. Users are individuals who are sometimes consumers and sometimes producers. They are substantially more engaged participants, both in defining the terms of their productive activity and in defining what they consume and how they consume it. In these two great domains of life—production and consumption, work and play—the networked information economy promises to enrich individual autonomy substantively by creating an environment built less around control and more around facilitating action.

The emergence of radically decentralized nonmarket production in general and of peer production in particular as feasible forms of action opens new classes of behaviors to individuals. Individuals can now justifiably believe that they can in fact do things that they want to do, and build things that they want to build in the digitally networked environment, and that this pursuit of their will need not, perhaps even cannot, be frustrated by insurmountable cost or an alien bureaucracy. Whether their actions are in the domain of political organization (like the organizers of MoveOn.org), or of education and professional attainment (as with the case of Jim Cornish, who decided to create a worldwide center of information on the Vikings from his fifth-grade schoolroom in Gander, Newfoundland), the networked information environment opens new domains for productive life that simply were not there before. In doing so, it has provided us with new ways to imagine our lives as productive human beings. Writing a free operating system or publishing a free encyclopedia may have seemed quixotic a mere few years ago, but these are now far from delusional.

He adds: "Human beings who live in a material and social context that lets them aspire to such things as possible for them to do, in their own lives, by themselves and in loose affiliation with others, are human beings who have a greater realm for their agency. We can live a life more authored by our own will and imagination than by the material and social conditions in which we find ourselves. At least we can do so more effectively than we could until the last decade of the twentieth century."

As for the second point:
The emergence of the networked information economy makes one other important contribution to autonomy. It qualitatively diversifies the information available to individuals. Information, knowledge, and culture are now produced by sources that respond to a myriad of motivations, rather than primarily the motivation to sell into mass markets. Production is organized in any one of a myriad of productive organizational forms, rather than solely the for-profit business firm. The supplementation of the profit motive and the business organization by other motivations and organizational forms—ranging from individual play to large-scale peer-production projects—provides not only a discontinuously dramatic increase in the number of available information sources but, more significantly, an increase in available information sources that are qualitatively different from others. (p.162)

This diversity of information sources is important, because our autonomy is enhanced by putting the full diversity of human experience on display. Why? Because learning about other ways of life is vital for making a fully informed and reflective decision about our own:
In order to sustain the autonomy of a person born and raised in a culture with a set of socially embedded conventions about what a good life is, one would want a choice set that included at least some unconventional, non-mainstream, if you will, critical options. If all the options one has—even if, in a purely quantitative sense, they are “adequate”—are conventional or mainstream, then one loses an important dimension of self-creation. The point is not that to be truly autonomous one necessarily must be unconventional. Rather, if self-governance for an individual consists in critical reflection and re-creation by making choices over the course of his life, then some of the options open must be different from what he would choose simply by drifting through life, adopting a life plan for no reason other than that it is accepted by most others. A person who chooses a conventional life in the presence of the option to live otherwise makes that conventional life his or her own in a way that a person who lives a conventional life without knowing about alternatives does not. (p.151)

By making it possible for many more diversely motivated and organized individuals and groups to communicate with each other, the emerging model of information production provides individuals with radically different sources and types of stories, out of which we can work to author our own lives. Information, knowledge, and culture can now be produced not only by many more people than could do so in the industrial information economy, but also by individuals and in subjects and styles that could not pass the filter of marketability in the mass-media environment. The result is a proliferation of strands of stories and of means of scanning the universe of potential stories about how the world is and how it might become, leaving individuals with much greater leeway to choose, and therefore a much greater role in weaving their own life tapestry. (p.175)

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