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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Best Business Books: The Future

Changing Culture, Changing Cities, Changing Climate

Yochai Benkler,
The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
(Yale University Press, 2006)

Henry Jenkins,
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide
(New York University Press, 2006)

Robert Neuwirth,
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
(Routledge, 2005)

AnnaLee Saxenian,
The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy
(Harvard University Press, 2006)

Tim Flannery,
The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)


One way to dial the fuzzy future into sharper focus is by scanning the present environment, then zooming in on the parts that appear to be undergoing significant change right now. This year’s books about the future do exactly that. Approach them as lenses, not as maps; rather than predict outcomes, they look closely at today’s shifting fault lines. The transformations these books examine lie at the heart of tomorrow’s big-picture issues: worsening global warming, sprawling squatter cities, atomizing media power, and emerging economic regions that feed as well as compete with Silicon Valley. Each of these developments points to a changing balance of power — between man and his environment, between the rich and the poor, between mainstream media and upstarts, and between the U.S. and India and China — that will reshape the ways we do business in the years to come.

Who’s in Control?
Such apparently unrelated phenomena as open source software, Wikipedia, political bloggers, citizen journalists, file-sharing networks, and radio spectrum regulation are all part of a single wave of change. Do-it-yourself (DIY) media — abetted by mobile phones, digital cameras, laptop computers, and broadband connectivity — have expanded well beyond early adopters and are changing the way people create and distribute cultural products. And the insurgent DIY media are, not surprisingly, at odds with the entrenched mainstream media. Yochai Benkler’s book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom presents evidence that this conflict will determine whether today’s digital innovations lead to greater wealth and liberty for a wider variety of people and companies or to more highly concentrated power for a few centralized media providers.

“Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development,” Professor Benkler writes. “How they are produced and exchanged in our society affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done. The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for two centuries.”

Professor Benkler, who teaches at Yale Law School, argues that radically democratized access to the means of intellectual production and distribution made possible by cheap computers and the Web over the past two decades could change governments, science, economics, and intellectual life in the years to come. In particular, he claims that shifts in economic and social organization among online communities have produced fundamentally new kinds of institutions for creating culture and exchanging knowledge. He points to the rise of “nonmarket and nonproprietary” production by volunteers cooperating via the Internet on such projects as Linux and Wikipedia. The “peer production methods” behind these projects suggest that the individuals involved are neither strictly self-interested nor purely altruistic, but rather a mixture of both. Individuals decide for themselves how they want to contribute — which piece of the Linux infrastructure to work on, which Wikipedia pages to edit — a process that in turn leads to a form of self-organization with distributed control. Linux and Wikipedia thus “hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century.”

 
 
 
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