Although Benkler’s article was very interesting, there was one small point within it that I took issue with. On page 5, Benkler claims that “Science is built around many people contributing incrementally- not operating on market signals, not being handed their research marching orders by a boss.” While the first part of this statement is accurate, the second is not. Scientists must get funding to perform research, and so they must appeal to either public or private interest to recieve that funding. The suggestion that scienfitic research exists free of corporate interests is simply not correct, and this strikes a hard blow against Benkler’s point that open source software can follow the same model. Of course, this is not to say that open-source software need follow the same model, but the comparison provided here seems to suggest that it should, and so it is disapointing that Benkler points to a field that is so often bogged down by the old model of private interests to demonstrate how technological advances should occur in the “commons.”
In “Peer Production and Sharing,” Benkler writes: “As [collaborative software production] expanded and came to encompass more participants, and produce more of the basic tools of Internet connectivity–Web server, e-mail server, scripting–more of those who participated sought to “normalize” it, or, more specifically, to render it apolitical. Free software is about freedom…’Open-source software’ was chosen as a term that would not carry the political connotations.” He goes on to add, however, that “from the perspective of society at large, and the historical trajectory of information production generally the abandonment of political motivation and the importation of free software into the mainstream have not made it less politically interesting, but more so.” (8) In other words, even though most of today’s peer-produced software is not overtly politically motivated, they take advantage of a new kind of collaborative behavior that is, at its heart, a political activity.
This brings back ideas from earlier readings about online community-building. Some early online communities, particularly the Well, were also havens for radical and progressive politics (culminating in idealistic rhetoric like John Perry Barlow’s “Cyberspace Manifesto”). However, as the Internet expanded in scope and popularity, the radical politics of “cyberculture” been for the most part sidelined by “apolitical” interests like commerce and entertainment. However, as Benkler illustrates, basic concepts of peer production like “the commons” and cooperation toward shared goals are all part of a “social contract” of online behavior, one that both reflects and influences real-world social and political attitudes.
I’d be interested to know what effect, if any, first-hand experiences working with (or on) peer-produced services have had on your own level of political awareness. Does using and building peer-produced services like Wikipedia, Skype, and P2P filesharing make us more conscious of our relationship to the digital commons of information, and if so, do you these experiences might translate to a similar openness toward collaboration (and maybe even collective activism) in the real world? More importantly, now that our on- and off-line behaviors are becoming increasingly interdependent, is this even a distinction we have to make?