Sunday, April 14, 2013

Benkler Article

The University in the Networked Economy and Society: Challenges and Opportunities by Yochai Benkler.

This article opens with the statement “The networked information economy and society present a new
social, technical, and economic environment within which the university functions.” Benkler makes the argument that the University is uniquely positioned to contribute to the growth of knowledge without commercial constraints.

Benkler then goes on to describe several areas that have been impacted by being digitally networked.  The first topic addressed in the “networked information economy” where Benkler says “The critical characteristic of the networked economy is a radical decentralization of physical capital necessary for the production, storage, distribution, and processing of information, knowledge, and culture.” What he means by this is that geography is not as much of a factor as it used to be. Different researchers in different places can be working on the same problem, and digitally share their data. Which Benkler also points out “decentralizes” the ownership as well. It’s much harder to determine who owns information when it is created by different people in different places and then combined or hosted on line.

He discusses the ability of hobbyists to contribute to a larger knowledge base, and to compete in it. He mentions open source software, Wikipedia and citizen journalists as examples. With all of these things it is possible for anyone, from professional to novice, to contribute as much or as little as they want, whenever they want.

This can lead to a conflict between the progression of technology and people trying to cling to the older models of how things were done. Copyright is one example of this. Traditional copyright laws and rules don’t directly apply to digital information.

He discusses how the boundaries between the university and the outside world become permeable when “professionals” such as people who work at a university contribute to things like open source software or Wikipedia. He advocates for Universities to make the technology available for professionals to contribute in this way, as well as making the rules clear so that professionals know when they can and can’t do in the new networked environment.

While all the things he says do make sense in an ideal world, his argument that universities can provide knowledge without commercial constraints I find a little hard to believe. Researchers need to find funding, often in the form of competitive grants. There has to be a reason for doing the research, and while it is not always financially motivated, sometimes it is.

In addition, think of all the patents that the UW holds. Warfarin and Vitamin D come to mind. These things have brought in a lot of money for the university. I find it hard to believe that there is absolutely no pressure on researchers to bring in money for the University with their research.  In a utopian ideal, yes, all university work would be done for the good of all. But in reality it doesn’t quite work that way.

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