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Video-Interview Yochai Benkler

Society – Technology – People

Prof. Dr. Yochai Benkler, Harvard, beschäftigt sich mit den Auswirkungen der Organisation von Technikgenese. Im Gespräch erklärt er, warum gemeinschaftliche Produktion von Ideen und Zusammenarbeit gerade bei digitalen Technologien anderen Organisationsformen vorzuziehen sind. Benkler forscht als Jurist über soziale Produktionen in Netzwerken und dezentrale Zusammenarbeit zur Innovation und Produktion von Informationen.

Textfassung des Video Länge 33:41 Min.

18.06.2018 | BIBB

Society – Technology – People: Theory-Interviews on the relationship between societal and technological change


Interview with Prof. Dr. Yochai Benkler

This interview was filmed in Cambridge, USA on 18 June 2018. The interviewer was Thomas Leuchtenmüller. It is part of a BIBB-research project on "Polarisierung von Tätigkeiten in der Wirtschaft 4.0 - Fachkräftequalifikationen und Fachkräftebedarf in der digitalisierten Arbeit von morgen", funded by BMBF.

More information can be found here:


Where do we find sources for technological change and social division of labour?

Fundamentally I think focusing on technology alone as the object of analysis as opposed to the interaction between technology, social relations or institutions, and ideology is a mistake. So to ask this question separately: What brings technological change? And what shapes technological change? One has to connect it with the social relations within which it's embedded and the ideological framework within which it's embedded. We can think of essentially three core structuring dimensions in any human society. First are the institutions or the social relations. This can include both formal like law and in informal like norms and these can include things that are explicit as well as habits and practices that are implicit. And these essentially create the set of relations of power and affordance among people that structure their relations. Then we can look at ideas or ideology or meaning that structure how we understand the world. So, whether you're talking about habitus, whether you're talking about ideology, whether you're talking about frame analysis across many and diverse disciplines and approaches the core understanding that the way we understand the world affects what we know, how we know, how we interpret what we know, how we behave in response, how we define our goals, is central. And the third major structuring dimension is this dimension of congealed practical knowledge embodied in material culture. The things with which we work in the world. These three dimensions interact with each other across the four core domains of human life: Economy or how we produce things, polity or how me manage violence, reproduction/kinship or how we manage reproduction and culture and meaning how make meaning together in the world. And so, when you ask what shapes the rate and direction of innovation or what causes technology, it always has to be understood within the context of a particular set of institutions, of particular cultural meaning and it may have different or somewhat different effects within these four basic domains of life. If you look at the telecommunication system that emerges in early 20th century, whether is privately owned as in the United States or publicly owned as it is everywhere else similarly you have a highly centralized model that also results in a technical infrastructure that is highly centralized with the switches and controlled very centrally with the phones have a very narrow range of capabilities. And the technology both implements the ideology and the social relations of structures of control and helps inform them, so that by looking at the way the material world we build operates, allows us to understand who we are and how we are. What we see essentially in the 70's and from the 70's really until the great recession in 2008, is a dramatic break from the first two thirds of the 20th century that again reflects itself in ideology, in social relations and in technology, which feed in to each other. Both to shape our imagination about how we can organize our relations and implement in material culture the social relations we imagine for ourselves. To understand technology as the driving force would be a mistake. To imagine that technology is epiphenomenal and wasn't actually centrally a part of the story of changing how much labor was absorbed into the household, how much freedom there was from the family, would also be a mistake. So, you really need the continuous understanding across all three of these dimensions of technology, social relations and ideology and across all four domains of action economy, polity, kinship and culture, to get a decent grasp of what is going on and where it is going. So, one of the critical things we've learned over the last 25 Years is that the rate of innovation but also the direction of innovation are influenced by shifting from a property-based model to a commons-based model in a way that needs to completely redefine how we understand the relationship between the state, the market and innovation. And that in fact social innovation around the commons becomes a central driver of innovation. #00:06:05-8#


Who is driving technological change and social division of labour?

One of the interesting things of the change in particularly the social science literature of the last quarter century has been a recognition of the importance of the interaction between non-market and market actors, between not only the state and market actors, but also networks of socially motivated individuals. So, if you imagine a universe in which in the mid 20th century you see large centralized organizations being the primary driver of innovation - think Schumpeter and the idea of creative destruction, and the major organizations that compete, create a new market and then control it. The classic model there, that's Bell labs which has more nobel laureates in physics than any university department in the mid-century, that's major investment in creation of federal funding of science in the united states: That's the mid century model. The large organizations, both state and market, are the primary drivers. Then you have the emergence over the course of the the 70's and 80's of the idea that it is really about entrepreneurial firms and it's constantly this idea of smaller entrepreneurial firms driven by market competition with ever more perfect property rights. And that's what drives the extreme growth in patents and the centrality of intellectual property rights to the world trade organization and the TRIPS agreement and later on the bilateral agreements. It's a shift from the idea of a very small number of firms that exercise control by market power and don't need so much patents and government funding to these entrepreneurial competitive firms. One of the things that has really developed in the last 25 years has been an understanding that loose networks of individuals and social relations, academia and non-profits, civil society organizations and activists, interact with small firms and large firms that even the large firms themselves are highly diverse in the extend of which they are controlling as opposed to allowing for a flow of information. The critical shift to understand, is that there is no single optimal organization or solution that is the primary driver. It's not only government funding, although it is that too. It's not only big companies, although it is that too. It's not only entrepreneurial firms, although it is that too and even though I have spent so much of my time working on commons-based peer production and distributed innovation in the network, it would be a mistake to imagine that all innovation comes from there too. The critical thing is the interaction between these and knowledge flows and innovation at the end, the individual users, the hacker cultures - that's what's driving innovation interaction between these more than anything else. One of the most surprising, possibly the most surprising fact of the development of the internet in it's first fifteen years or so was the absolutely central role of commons-based production for the creation of the internet. So, if you asked a room full of practicing economists in 1995, that here are two groups of engineers. One is the biggest software company in the world, seeing that their major strategic next step is to move to the web and the other is an informal collection of engineers who have adopted a model that let's anybody copy the software that they produced and exercises no exclusive rights "Which of these two become the core infrastructure of the world wide web?" And you would have said that it was the commons-based engineers you would have been laughed out of the room. And yet the Apache-Webserver, Linux, MySQL, E-Mail, the LAMP stack as a whole, scripting languages, statistics with r – a whole class of basic infrastructure was developed on a model that was considered theoretically inadmissible when in practice it worked. The same is true obviously for Wikipedia, but even the internet engineering task force itself is a completely anarchic collection of voluntary participants with no structures for formal decision making other than argument, humming and implementation. So, there is a fundamental drive, that drove the internet in the direction that it went, which was: highly resilient, continuously learning, not optimized for anything, including not for prices, that emerged out of the way of organizing innovation. That was practically inadmissible in the1990's. The second thing that comes out of that recognition in terms of the rate of innovation, is the absolute centrality of homo socialis relative to homo oeconomicus, that is to say the fact that we have about a quarter century of work from evolutionary biology through experimental economics to political sciene and sociology, that documents experimentally and theoretically that the model of the self-interested rational actor acting under self-interest with guile is simply a poor model of actual human behavior in the real world. Instead what we have are diverse people, responding to diverse motivations and in particular affected by the particular institutional framework within which they are in. So, if you build a framework that treats people as self-interested they become more self-interested. If you treat them as one, like Wikipedia's "Assume good faith", one that depends on trust, sometimes there will still be people who will take advantage of that trust. You cannot exist in the second decade of the 21st century without recognizing that there are the spammers, and the crackers and the propagandists who will take advantage of open systems. It's not a utopia. But at the same time some small majority of people nonetheless act as trusting human beings and cooperative human beings as part of this model of innovation, but also of economic organization. So, as you are trying to understand both the rate and direction of innovation, understanding that our experience and the social-sciences have moved us from thinking about self-interested individuals to socially motivated individuals with diverse motivations.  #00:14:15-1#


Which consequences will arise from technological change?

I think that there are highly visible daily changes, the fact that ten years ago there was no smartphone and now we can't imagine a life without and you have Uber that completely depends and wouldn't exist without it. It makes us feel as though the rate of change has dramatically increased and our dependence on machines has increased. But I think that it's very hard to establish empirically and I think the fundamental change is already at the beginning of industrialization and at the latest by the second quarter of the 19th century where we see no generation really living with the same technology of the generation that preceeded it. And where the structures of economic production, political participation and even family structure are continuously disrupted by a new class of technological innovations. I would say: Yes, we are deeply dependent on the interactions between our institutions and our technology, but I haven't seen the evidence that the rate of change is increasing. Technology is not destiny. There is no determinant consequence of any particular technological change. What there is, is a continuous political, social, ideological struggle over how technology develops, how it is implemented, what sort of social relations it underscores and naturalizes. And what we are seeing as we have seen for several generations now is significant variation between different countries at the same technological frontier. One thing that all, I would say, democratic countries today face is a fundamental crisis of democratic theory and a fundamental crisis of a sense of identity and  what it is to be together with each other. There is a class of claims about this crisis that located in technology and the changes of skills biased technical change, automation, creating insecurity about long term unemployment, the idea that the app-economy will generalize precarity and precarious existence and that technology is disrupting these institutions. There is an equally powerful opposite: Technoutopianism, that imagines the technology will eliminate scarcity, that technology will allow for more efficient government to know everything that's going on, that we will be able through of the use of behavioural marketing in updating apps to nudge people in the direction of living a better life. All of these are possible and none of them are determinate. We could see a dystopia of the worst kind where essentially a very small class of capital owners extract all of the value, manipulate populations through propaganda that is instantiated and personalized through network propaganda, measure and identify individually what we mobilize individuals to want this or that, to buy this or that, to vote this or that and then create a surveillance based system that individually manipulates every individual. We could also in principal see a utopia in which through the use of very personalized and AI-driven adaptations gives people the ability to optimize their own lives, to connect better with other people, to monitor their governments and hold it to accountability better, to participate and self-organise in democratic politics. Technology allows either one of these edges of utopia and dystopia and there won't be one answer. Which of these will ultimately win, in which countries and how or what mix of them will win, will largely determine the way in which over the next fifty years will adopt to new technologies, whether in the end we will end up with something that we still recognize as democracy or not, whether in the end we still end up with something that we would call autonomy or whether we would become automatons controlled either by a benevolent state or by marketing companies remains to be seen. I think the most important currently observable agglomeration of technologies that has at a bare minimum the highest risk to the possibility of more or less autonomous individuals and a more or less democratic society is the cluster that allows both companies and governments to measure us at a very individual level. The ubiquity of sensors to observe our responses to different interventions so as to experiment on a population scale, to process that data into highly refined individualized models – which is to say of what we think of as big data, or more recently machine learning and AI – that together create the possibility of a small number of actors, whether state or market, that can through experimental validation recognize and manipulate what we know about the world, our beliefs, what we want, our preferences and what are the actions that are available to us and the outcomes available to us. That to me is the greatest threat.  #00:21:00-3#


How are drivers and consequences of technological change connected?

We have seen three fundamental changes over the last 25 years in core theoretical understandings that are relevant to technological change and it's relation to social structure. The first is a shift in the nature of rationality from the idea of self-interested rational actors, whose rationality is prior to the context in which they interact, to a model of reasonable and embedded individuals who are not optimizers but are rather satisfiers and who's motivations and view of rationality is embedded within the interaction. We have seen a shift in the model form self-interested rational actors to socially motivated individuals with diverse motivations. We have seen a shift from a uniform focus on property and contract to the interaction between property and commons and we have seen a shift from the idea of motivations being completely disconnected from context to understanding that motivations are dependent. So if you treat people as self interested actors they become more, they behave more in self interested way and they treat each other as strangers. If you treat them more as connected they cooperate more. Moving from the abstract to the particular there are fields of work where we have seen technology being regulated in ways that reflect one or another of these frameworks and there are very particular institutional implementations. So you look at spectrum policy, you move from the idea of fully regulated spectrum, to markets in spectrum and now to spectrum commons. And as a empirical matter most of the innovation at the edges – if you are talking today about internet of things, if you are talking today about high, high, high capacity data in a very local level - none of that can happen over proprietary spectrum. It's all being driven by spectrum commons. If you are looking at software, the whole path of going to software patents was a fundamental error that we today understand, they become more about rent extraction than about innovation. And rather what we have seen is free and open-source software, a commons based model being adopted by a lager number of firms and providing some of the very basic infrastructure. So, these are very concrete things. You can look at the shift from individual invention to knowledge flows, that has been absolutely central - and has the same analytic structure - absolutely central to understanding regional development and the shift from the idea that I need strong patents or that I need strong trade secrets to the idea that what you want is to assure circulation and flow of people. It's more about people, bringing people and allowing them to have conversations in regions, that has allowed region to emerge. I would say that the critical underlying mechanism is ideology or the shared conception within a society of how things fit together, what works with what, what’s reasonable or plausible to do in interaction with each other, what things mean, what to prefer. So, there is a fundamental driver which is an aspect of culture, a Zeitgeist of a certain kind that allows people – not only allows – forces people to understand the possibilities and what to do with something in a way that is enormously constraining in terms of how to use things. And when you are looking from period to period over the last hundred and so years, about how technology was deployed, how it was implemented, which technologies where emphasized and which where are abandoned. Repeatedly what you see is that there is, at a bare minimum, an elite shared sense, and by elite I mean a small set within society that controls outsize power over organizational and institutional frameworks, that sees the world in a certain way and then interprets what it sees to fit that mental model and implements the systems. So, Taylorism and Fordism and Managerialism was a certain way of looking at the world and then you saw technologies and institutions fitting it. Then suddenly Privatization and Deregulation became a way to look at administrative ways and then suddenly if you're looking at Environmental Regulation then you have tradable permits, if you are looking at spectrum you have auctions and so forth. You see a change, a fundamental change. Or, in the US in particular, to some extend in the UK as well, you see a shift from the idea of managers as stewards of stakeholders to the idea of superstars. And with that you see a fundamental reorientation of how technologies get implemented in organizations to allow a stable financialized small elite to create much more precarious work for workers. So, that's one major driving force. The institutions of our societies, the basic rules by which people see themselves as bound to each other, similarly are constraining to how far things can go, and how far you get shaped.  #00:27:44-3#


What measures can be taken to steer technological change?

The primary threat of failing to steer comes from the hope or believe of finding an optimal intervention point. So, we absolutely need increased state capacity to counter the increased power of firms, particularly multi-nationals, that are now shaping the technological and social infrastructure around their capabilities. So, the place that we see it most directly is in - we think of it as privacy, but really fundamentally it's about forcing companies to maintain a narrower range of information collection and use practices than they want to or can. Because one of the fundamental challenges to the possibility of democratic and liberal society and market society is the fact that we have become programmable. Enough data is collected about us individually and enough of our interaction with the world is now manipulable in real time and individualized that behavioral psychology and economics now makes it possible for governments and companies to measure us, experiment on us and nudge us in a direction of developing preferences and practices that fit their project, not ours. So, we need a fundamental concerted effort to harness politics to prevent that emergence. The state itself is a complex agglomeration of bureaucratic and politically accountable and judicial structures, so you need a nation specific strategic plan for intervention to contain the state's use of the ability to surveil and manipulate its population while at the same time harnessing its unique power over violence to constrain the companies that are doing the same thing. Both of which also need to see the fact that in the social distributed model there is enough abuse and enough of a mob or risk of a mob structure of various forms, left, right - you name it, that also needs to be controlled. And we are seeing it now when we are looking at Fake-News and abuse online, we are seeing it now when we are looking at so called sharing economy or platform economy in cities. You are seeing this effort to mix and match between these very fallible but necessary components, market, state based organizations and social distributed network practices, as a continuous effort to diagnose where there is a risk, diagnose who is the best ally today and then act morally and politically to get there. The fact that we continue to have highly decentralized capabilities in our hand to form networks to communicate with each other, to self organize, offers a real alternative to a more participatory economy, and a more participatory society. As long as you have these negative features of centralized manipulation contained. So, to me that is one class: Both of these technologies - highly distributed computation and highly distributed sensors with a high degree of capability of processing data at a very high level - can implement both a fundamental undermining of both markets. If you can manipulate preferences then markets have no meaning, because markets simply satisfy preferences and democracy has no meaning, because democracy clears peoples political preferences. Both democracy and markets cannot survive when preferences are themselves the object of manipulation. That needs to be stopped. But the same technologies can also produce very distributed and highly participatorial models. So, that is one class of interventions. The second obviously at a planetary level is the question of distributed energy generation from natural and renewable resources. That's a fundamental question of how we get reorganized and in principle you can certainly see radically decentralized energy production changing the extent to which we have decentralized collaborative production as opposed to centralized. Similarly, though we have been saying it for a while, the question of distributed fabrication, what we would today think of this fablab's or 3d-printing. The extent to which you can actually live in a world in which most of the daily necessities can be fabricated at least at a local level, possibly individual level, could again radically transform production and consumption. Those are deeply disruptive but very near-term plausible frameworks both in a positive and in a negative way.

Informationen zum Video

Interview aufgenommen am 18.06.2018 in Cambridge, USA

Interviewer: Thomas Leuchtenmüller

Kamera, Ton: Olaf Kuzniar

Team vor Ort: Marc Fricke Carles, Robert Helmrich, Olaf Kuzniar, Thomas Leuchtenmüller, Michael Tiemann

Produktion: überRot GmbH

Der Inhalt steht unter der Creative Commons-Lizenz 4.0 International CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 (mehr dazu bei www.bibb.de/cc-lizenz).

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Peer Production, the Commons, and the Future of the Firm

Benkler, Yochai | In: Strategic Org. 264, S. 1-11 | 2017

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Benkler, Yochai | In: Harhoff, Dietmar; Lakhani, Karim R. (Hrsg.): Revolutionizing Innovation: users, communities, and open innovation. London | 2016

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