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."