Yochai Benkler: An Introduction

By Apar Gupta

As technology becomes a central pivot around which our lives revolve, there is a need to pause and consider its impact. This is a tough task. It requires deep thinking and critical observation, an ability to not only look at the present but to seer into the future. For this seemingly irregular task, it is fitting that the opening keynote for the talk series Metamorphoses is delivered by Prof. Yochai Benkler. Much beyond his faculty position at Harvard and being the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, his work has been inventive in shaping thought and action on diverse domains that are inherent in a networked society. Displaying remarkable breadth, his prolific scholarship on a networked information society peaks in distinct but interrelated areas such as innovation, freedom and democracy, network neutrality, privacy and surveillance, social sharing and online collaboration. His writing casts a vast expanse of critical thought that has shaped our understanding about not only the internet but digital technologies itself.

While much of his academic work stretches further back, many technologists, law geeks and policy wonks continue to be enthralled by his epoch setting book ‘The Wealth of Networks, published in 2006. Despite the rapid pace of digital innovation, the intellectual core of the book remains relevant, if not having matured to greater applicability. It remains a contemporary text for understanding how digital technologies transform individual and social interactions often for the better. As it notes, “[w]e are in the midst of a technological, economic and organisational transformation that allows us to renegotiate the terms of freedom, justice and productivity in the information society. How we shall live in this new environment will in some significant measure depend on policy choices that we make over the next decade or so…”. Many of these issues are at the forefront of the several talks planned over the course of the year by a dynamic partnership between the Centre for Policy Research, India International Centre and NITI Aayog.

Developing further on ‘The Wealth of Networks’, his more recent book, ‘The Penguin and The Leviathan’, published in 2011, juxtaposes seemingly contradictory interests. While the Penguin, serves as a motif of the free and open source software movement representing an altruistic leaning, the Leviathan confronts a fundamental selfishness within us. However this tension reveals something deeply human, a capacity for using technology for cooperation and collaboration. In times when there is growing suspicion of digital technologies he brings a realistic moderation to our collective pessimism. The internet continues to form an information commons in which groups of engaged individuals work together for common goals. This has often been witnessed in India, which has seen online efforts, often on the basis of informal communities formed on social media, to address diverse issues ranging from net neutrality, to disaster relief and violence against women.

Over the years, Prof. Benkler has continued to author influential papers on issues such as online democracy and power where he has emphasised the need to prevent choke points to maintain content diversity and user rights over the internet. However, it would be a mistake to limit him either as an academic or a thought leader on issues of technology and the internet. Actively participating in debates and causes on technology, he remains invested in promoting its mission for improving individual lives and social ideals by serving as a board member on non-profits such as Fight-for-the-Future and the Open Society Foundation. As many of us in India grapple with issues such as fake news, data breaches and online trolling, we run the risk of our thinking becoming reflexive and our responses becoming reactionary. To pace distance and plan out how technology is and is going to impact society, we may need to run fast and also to walk slow. Next week, at the India International Centre, we may be able to calm down our pace of thought, pause and consider a long term view, benefiting from an interaction with one of the most prominent philosophers of the internet.

But where and when?

Deshmukh Auditorium, India International Centre, Delhi
May 2, from 6 PM to 8 PM
Register for the event at this link.