Benkler’s approach is different, much more in the vein of, say, Manuel Castells. He tries to articulate the changes in society generated by access to a network that allows about a billion people (and growing) to connect with each other virtually free, virtually instantaneously, and without typical expected barriers to entry and transaction costs that have driven our approach to policy to date. The social changes rendered by the internet is by now a venerable topic, and we’ve had ten years of cyberutopianism (the net will change the way people think, work, sleep, play, eat, drink, etc, etc) followed by the inevitable response of cyberskeptics patiently explaining (as though to impaired children) that the net changes little, the economics remains the same, governments will still regulate it, big business will still dominate it, etc etc. Benkler manages to revive the initial utopianism of the early days of the net, but does so in a way that captures the revolutionary opportunity of socially-produced information goods, without lapsing into the kind of boosterism that characterized early cyberutopianism and the ensuing dot com bubble.
Unfortunately this approach also poorly serves the interested non-academic reader who—thinking this work is exactly what she needs to understand why Ohmynews is so important, or why Wikinews isn’t working—picks up the book expecting it to be both smart and accessible. It’s definitely smart, but it’s not built for the general reader. The danger is not so much that the reader won’t understand what is going on, so much as that she will wonder why she doesn’t get it. Benkler’s prose is routinely described as “dense”, which I once took to mean “if you don’t understand this then you’re dumb and it’s your fault”. I fear that too many readers have the same fear that the problem is with them, that they’re too dull or lazy or busy to take in the lessons here. It’s not impossible to follow what Benkler is saying, but I wished that he would say it directly. It’s clear that he can. The text fairly comes alive when it talks about the recursive/iterative moderation system behind Slashdot, or when discussing the role of blogs in the Trent Lott, Diebold, and “BoycottSBG” cases. But there are large swathes that are a challenge for those who, like me, are lazy.