Wealth of Networks – Technology and Sharing

From page 120-121 of Benkler’s Wealth of Networks

"… Goods, services, and resources that, in the industrial stage of the information economy required large-scale, concentrated capital investment to provision, are now subject to a changing technological environment that can make sharing a better way of achieving the same results than can states, markets, or their hybrid, regulated industries…"

emphasis mine.

This is one of the most succint expositions of the open source/open access movement that I have ever read. Besides the compelling point that he is making – that sharing can be be better because technology has reduce the transaction costs – there are other benefits as wel.

Good production that is ensconced in market-based firms is opaque. That is, the inputs go in, the outputs come out and the process is often hidden from view. As a result, the input providers cannot know what actions they could take to create a better output or make the process more efficient. This is exactly the point that John Seely Brown makes in a podcast that I recently listened to (link here).

Brown gives examples from the auto industry where Toyota has a close and reciprocal relationship with its suppliers where everyone involved in the production of the automobile can contribute ideas and improvements to the entire supply chain and assembly process. In contrast, Detroit manufacturers exercise top-down command and control over the suppliers and do not encourage transparency or cooperative input.

The sharing model encourages people to not just contribute what is requested or needed, but to examine the entire enterprise and suggest or offer ideas and resources that change the method of production to make it better or more efficient. This is especially valuable for knowledge products (and what isn’t a knowledge product these days?) where the no single participant or even organization knows everything and everyone can learn from the experiences of others to the benefit of all.

Applying this to legal education (or education in general), faculty could share their home-grown course materials instead of using the commercial textbook publishers in a cooperative environment that would invite input frmo the adopters of the textbook. Because the good is digital (at least until it gets printed), it could be incrementally improved, updated more regularly than a commercial publisher could afford and the teacher’s manual would be distributed and granularized meta-data that travels along with the content itself.

The meta-data would take the form of advice, bias, preference and approach that the author took in the creation of the course material. (i.e. "I am teaching this from the law and economics angle", or "I use tenets of feminist jurisprudence as my teaching approach in these materials…", etc.

Since digital storage is inexpensive, all instances of course materials from many instructors could be made available so that the user could choose from a a wider array of materials. The transparency in the sharing model makes it easier for new entrants (new teachers and instructors teaching a course for the first time) to enter the community and come up to speed faster.

When I got my undergraduate degree in computer science back in 1980’s, I studied operating systems – but only as flow charts, block diagrams and theoretical constructs in a book. We did not have any operating system source code available to us. Today’s CS students study (and contribute to) the inner workings of Linux or BSD. The transparency side-effect of commons sharing makes for great educational opportunities that were previously locked up in market-based commercial products.

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