Can the Internet Bring the Beginning of the End of Selfishness?

A new book from Yochai Benkler, one of the preeminent philosophers of the Internet, explores what compels people to cooperate


Wikipedia presents a basic economic puzzle: why do tens of thousands of users contribute their time and expertise for no financial compensation and little to no outside recognition?  Altruism? Community? Boredom? As part of The Atlantic's celebration of 10 years of the collaborative encyclopedia last January, Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, suggested that the "biggest gift Wikipedia has given us" is "a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes." 

Benkler had described and classified the possible motivations driving Wikipedians in his 2006 tome The Wealth of Networks, in which he analyzed the Internet's impact on the economics of information. In his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler builds on the lessons of Wikipedia to explain why humans cooperate, and to debunk the notion that we are compelled singularly by mere selfishness. The book is, in his terminology, a response to Wikipedia's greatest gift. In taking aim at selfishness, Benkler puts in his crosshairs a fundamental tenet of modern economics, and this, ultimately, is what lends the book its relevance and gravity.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler argued that we had shifted from an "industrial" information economy to a "networked" one, in which a new model of distributed, collaborative production played a major role. He dubbed this phenomenon "commons-based peer production" -- which itself should make clear the book's academic bent -- and argued persuasively that it not only mattered, but was a positive development for the world. There had been credible academic work on the economics of open-source software, which presents a similar motivational puzzle, but Benkler expanded beyond software to include not just Wikipedia, but blogs, online forums, and all manner of information products. His book set a new bar in Internet scholarship with its impressive combination of breadth and rigor, and insisted credibly that internet idealism was not synonymous with naiveté.

Where The Wealth of Networks offered an in-depth look at how collaborative production was possible online, Benkler's new book examines how similar mechanisms pervade all manner of cooperation. In particular, The Penguin and the Leviathan seeks to dismantle the pervasive assumption that humans are motivated primarily by narrow self-interest. This is a seductive axiom, from standard economic analysis to fields like public-choice theory and game theory. It is the justification for both government authority ("the Leviathan") and free markets ("the Invisible Hand"). Benkler suggests that a third organizational model is not only possible, but has already been demonstrated in countless arenas, online and off. That model, based on a broader understanding of human motivation, he dubs "the Penguin", after Tux, the mascot for the open-source operating system Linux.

The meat of the book is effectively a literature review on cooperation, drawing from a diverse set of disciplines including biology, psychology, neuroscience, economics, and more. Benkler begins with a quick tour of the past few decades in evolutionary biology, which serves to establish the fact that cooperation is not particularly surprising from an evolutionary standpoint. Yet, he urges readers not to get bogged down with evolutionary arguments, stressing the "need to understand the limits of the biology of cooperation." He is similarly cautious with respect to neuroscience, writing, "Just as with evolutionary theory, brain biology applied to most questions of morality and behavior provides little in the way of concrete answers about how to improve cooperation in actual, functioning social systems."

Having established the broad plausibility of cooperation at a biological level, Benkler is able to focus the bulk of his efforts on a mixture of psychology, experimental economics, and business case-studies to discover the mechanisms by which cooperation occurs. Some of these, such as fairness, group identity, and morality, will be familiar to readers of psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt. Others, such as frequent, frictionless communication, are a reminder of why the internet is so well-suited to collaborative enterprises. Among the most fascinating areas of study is the interplay between cooperation and traditional incentives, particularly the conclusion that offering monetary rewards can "crowd out" cooperation in certain contexts, for example, blood donations. As Benkler explains it, offering payment "frames the interaction as business, signaling to us that it's therefore okay to be selfish."

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Walter Frick is a Staff Writer at BostInno covering technology and venture capital. He has also written for The Atlantic, Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Energy Collective, among other publications.

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