Glitches in the Promise of the Networked Public Sphere: A Critique of Benkler's Wealth of Networks
Yochai Benkler is right when he argues, most recently in The Wealth of Networks, that the "networked public sphere" affords a looser, more democratic "platform" for innovation and deliberation than the "one-way, hub-and-spoke structure" of the "mass-media model." His suggestion, however, that the techniques of meaning production in the emergent technologies themselves vindicate the liberal theory of deliberative democracy is unconvincing to the extent they, in Benkler’s rendering, remain unavailable or unintelligible to whole swaths of the citizenry. By overstating the accessibility of the new technologies, he obfuscates the extant political economy of cultural production. It may now be truer than ever that the decentralized and transparent characteristics of the new platforms allow ideas and information to flow more efficiently and democratically to more people than under the “mass-media model.” It probably also affords more people the opportunity to create and participate in a range of “nonmarket” deliberative processes in public and in private. But these facts do not mean that we are all smarter, or freer, or (with apologies to Adam Smith) better off. The “networked public sphere” is hardly analogous to the lived public sphere in which the putative free flow of ideas itself has a “nonmarket” logic that is contingent on a variety of entrenched economic, social, and cultural arrangements. Until policy leaders develop strategies for expanding the availability or improving the accessibility of the new technologies, the affordances of the “networked public sphere” will accrue only to its wired participants.
Keywords: Benkler, Networked Public Sphere, Cultural Production, Affordances, Communications Regulation
Doctoral Candidate, Communications Program, Columbia University School of Journalism, Columbia University
Program administered by the Columbia Journalism school. My research
interests are in communications regulation, the political economy of communications, and cultural theory. I was an undergraduate instructor at Columbia College from 2005 to 2007 in a course on "Contemporary Western Civilization." Before enrolling at Columbia, I was a corporate telecommunications litigator in Washington, D.C. I am Haitian-American. My dissertation attempts a novel argument in the literature of
communications history: it seeks to explain passage of the 1927 Radio Act by situating it in the national reactionary mood of the day. The
crux of my argument is that policy elites believed that an independent commission of experts could tackle the perceived disorder occasioned by urbanization, Eastern and Southern European immigration, and Black migration to the cities.