This week’s reading analysis comes from chapter six of Yochai Benkler’s How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. While much of the chapter in the beginning focused on the Internet, Benkler looks back in time to our experiences with the press and telecommunications to make his point – the big fish always win and the little fish always get fried.
According to Benkler, the starting costs of founding a newspaper increased dramatically in the mid-1850s. The Herald had been founded in 1835 for five hundred dollars and just some fifteen years later the same startup costs were $100,000 or more. Benkler credits much of this to the innovation of higher-cost equipment and the transformation of the press into a professional organization. In a short amount of time we see that it was now impossible for one individual to start a newspaper. Sound familiar? This isn’t anything new. Soon this happened to both radio and television as well.
On radio Benkler writes: “The first decade and a half of radio in the United States saw rapid innovation and competition, followed by a series of patent suits aimed to consolidate control over the technology.” We later learn that monopolies quickly ensue until government regulation steps in. The same thing happens with Binkler’s example of “The Sinclair Broadcast Group[,] one of the largest owners of television broadcast stations in the United States.” At the time of Binkler’s writing, they owned or provided programming for approximately one-third of all U.S. homes. So what though? What does all this mean? What’s the key takeaway here?
My assumption is that the Internet will not see quite the same problems of monopolization, regulation and tension that it’s mass communication predecessors did. I could be wrong though, the Internet just feels like it’s a much more open model and one that’s conducive to everyone having a fair share of the action. Competition with web hosting companies and domain registrars have made it much easier today and less expensive (than 15 years ago) to get a website up. Unlike two centuries ago, technology gets cheaper as it improves.
Ultimately, I believe there are many out there who would fight for Internet freedom and work hard to keep it free of mainstream dominance by a few big players. Facebook is huge, yes, but only by popularity – not because it’s one of three websites to choose from. I just don’t think there’s a dark future in store for the Internet like my colleague suggests. Only time will tell though.
Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how the social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press.