Monday, March 19, 2007

Wealth of Nations and Networks

From the Wealth of Nations to the Wealth of Networks

[19 March]

The new UK £20 note features Adam Smith- his portrait, an image of a manufacturing process, and the tag-line:

  • "The division of labour in pin manufacturing: [ and the great increase in the quantity of work that results]"

Founder of classical political economy, Adam Smith's enlightenment cornerstone An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) theorized the dynamics (the division of labour) of the, then, emergent capitalist mode of production. Karl Marx's Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy and Capital took Smith's Wealth of Nations as their point of departure to place labour at the centre as a producer of value (as opposed to Smith's "invisible hand of the market") and highlight the social contradictions of the capitalist mode of production; whilst the Communist Manifesto asserted the utopian future of a more even distribution of wealth.

Whither the Wealth of Nations in today's networked world of digital communications? (- See Manuel Castell's three volume study The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society & Culture, 1996-98- here ; and the wikipedia overview Information Age)

One may toy with the idea that today's Wealth of Nations might be reflected in a £20 note that featured pioneers of the digital networked society, such as:
  • Vinton Cerf, a founder of the Internet ( the technical protocol TCP-IP);
  • or else, closer to home, Englishman Sir Tim Berners Lee, founder of the Web (World Wide Web), an application layer that sits on top of the Internet and allows us to "surf the web";
  • or one might even make a gambit for Welshman Donald Watts Davies, a co-inventor and originator of the term packet-switching (that underlies digital communications networks) at the National Physical Laborartory.
Both Cerf (Presidential Medal of Freedom) and Berners Lee (Knighthood) have been feted with the highest of civil honours in their countries for their contribution to humanity and the modern world.

And yet the digital communications revolution is a largely invisible affair compared to the hard modernity of the industrial revolution of iron, coal and the railways. Fibre optics and the radio spectrum, the understanding of the technical definition of bandwidth, and the real significance of communications infrastructure as a common public good - these are largely invisible affairs so that a gap persists between the world of technology, social policy, and popular understanding.
The communications revolution has transformed all sectors of the economy to produce a new informational and network society [Castells]; the latest phase of social modernity and capitalist transformation according to its constant revolutionary dynamic and bewildering pace of change.

Two seminal studies have recently been produced in the United States, echoing Adam Smith in their title The Wealth of Networks, exploring the dynamics of the network society and value and wealth creation:
  • Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006; see here)
  • Tom Vest, The Wealth of Networks: Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Global Internet Development (work in progress); see debate in the Cook Report on Internet here and here)
Both studies highlight today's Wealth of Nations as being enabled by the Wealth of Networks as a global communications system. A networked communications world based upon open technical architecture and protocols; that allow open access; that enables innovation and value production to occur at the edge of networks, to empower the user-producer and new entrant commercial players, for the new wealth of the global networked order has been created by disruptive new entrants, from Cisco to Microsoft, Yahoo to Google, Skype to BitTorrent, Kazza to You Tube.

In recent years the term "Net Neutrality" has become a charged one in the United States, and there are signs that it is now gaining a currency here in the UK (see for example here and here). "Net Neutrality" represents the meeting ground and site of struggle between technology, the market, and policy; and contending commercial and social visions of the future of the Broadband Internet.

Recent efforts by telecoms corporations in the US to control user's access to the Broadband Internet have led to a strong defence of the open first principles of the Internet and the Web, a large civil society coalition (, and a focus upon the government legislative process and legal instruments as a means of protecting the open Internet and the Web.

Advocates of Net Neutrality contest the telco vision of a closed and centralized communications system (- a system for billing, Tripe Play, etc), in defence of the open, end-to-end network that formed the basis of the Internet. The open Internet is a common public good, in what is affirmed as a win-win situation for both citizen-consumer and business- an enabler of the true Wealth of Nations, based upon an abundance as opposed to a scarcity model (- of bandwidth and network access and use). The insistence upon the Internet and the Web's foundation upon an open architecture with a non-discriminatory, neutral transport layer enabling edge based activity and innovation, is as fundamental and far-reaching in its ramifications as Adam Smith's focus upon the manufacture of a pin.

It is salutary that pioneers Vint Cerf and Berners Lee have provided their expert testimony to US government hearings in advocacy of an open future for communications: Vint Cerf in testimony in November 2005, with a brief statement of prinicple (here); and Berners Lee in testimony more recently on 1 March 2007, with a more extended overview of the fundamental technical and policy issues (here). The Net Neutrality drama continues to unfold- Berners Lee has remarked that he hopes that the Net Neutrality focus is a short term one (“I hope that the Net Neutrality thing is a short-term thing. In most of the world people regard Net Neutrality as such an obvious requirement that I hope [the solution] will be short term.”: here); the Cook Report on Internet reports "Net Neutrality As a Diversionary Red Herring" as telco infrastructure game-plays unfold (here); whilst engages the strategic issues at the level of government policy and the legislative process.

And so if one had to think of a contemporary counterpart to the Adam Smith £20 note and tag-line "the division of labour in pin manufacturing - and the great increase in the quantity of work that results", one might venture the portrait of a pioneer of the Internet and the Web, an image of fibre optic and the radio spectrum, and the accompanying tag-line "open networks and open access - and the new value and wealth that results". So that the the principle of openness (both technological and social) replaces Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market, as a crucial enabler of today's networked world.

[21 March]

A few generations on from Adam Smith's founding treatise of modern economics, the London Great Exhibition of 1851 - Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations - provided a spectacular demonstration of the new era of capitalist industry and enterprise and the UK's Imperial ambitions. The monumental Crystal Palace of iron and glass showcased the machinery of the industrial revolution; Adam Smith's pin manufacture - the division of labour - had become the dominant paradigm of modern manufacturing.

The invisible digital communications revolution demonstrates its epochal arrival less in the form of a monumental spectacle, than in its invisible weaving into the fabric of everyday life: "the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it" (Weiser). Our everyday weaving of the Internet and World Wide Web; our pc-lap-top-mobile-phone-pda screen on the world - for example my trip on the London tube yesterday, and a sight that an anthropologist might comment upon as quite a number of people in the carriage perform their silent private-public-space digital rituals, hands clutched towards the chest and sms fingers at work, lots of Blackberry scrolling. My afternoon shopping and the bookshop with its coffee shop plus Wi-Fi hotspot.

And more to come:

" the Web will be accessible from a growing diversity of networks (wireless, wireline, satellite, etc.) and will be available on a ever increasing number of different types of devices. Finally, in a related trend, Web applications will become a more and more ubiquitous throughout our human environment, with walls, automobile dashboards, refrigerator doors all serving as displays giving us a window onto the Web" (Berners Lee).

See Berners Lee's www2006 address on the future of the Internet and the open Internet model here.

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