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Mutual Inspiration and the Wealth of Networks

Wealthofnetworks I have been very slowly reading and digesting The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler. It is truly a labor of love. The more I read, the more I am convinced that this is book is / will be a significant part of the canon for the paradigm shift represented by Web 2.0. But it is not, by any stretch, an easy read -- I'm averaging around 5 minutes per page ... reminding me of the richness and density of materials I studied when I was a philosophy major at Ripon College (where my page reading rate was often even slower, e.g., for Heidegger and Sartre).

The Wealth of Networks describes how the increasing availability of tools for producing information, knowledge and culture is changing the nature of society. Participation in commons-based peer-production -- and sharing -- is an increasingly important component in the emerging networked information economy, to the point where it offers an alternative to the more traditional market-based proprietary production and transaction models that have characterized industrial society. As we enter the post-industrial era, the physical capital requirements that gave rise to hierarchical organizations of labor are diminished, enabling more people to participate in production -- individually, or through more loosely configured networks -- based on a greater variety of motivations (self-expression, religious or political fervor, hobby, community-seeking) than financial return on investment. Or at least, that's my current take on it, after reading about a third of the book so far.

Last night, as I was reading about Autonomy, Mass Media and Non-Market Information Producers in Chapter 5 (Individual Freedom: Autonomy, Information and Law), I came across a passage describing three hypothetical storytelling societies -- the Reds, the Blues and the Greens (and I'm sure that any allusions to political parties or characterizations is purely coincidental) -- that I found particularly inspiring. First, some background:

Among the Reds, the storyteller is a hereditary position, and he or she alone decides which stories to tell.

Among the Blues, the storyteller is elected every night by simple majority vote.

Every member of the community is eligible to offer him- or herself as that night's storyteller, and every member is eligible to vote.

Among the Greens, people tell stories all day, and everywhere.

Everyone tells stories.

People stop and listen if they wish, sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes in very large groups.

Stories in each of these societies play a very important role in understanding and evaluating the world.

They are the way people describe the world as they know it.

They serve as testing grounds to imagine how the world might be, and as a way to work out what is good and desirable and what is bad and undesirable.

This focus on the importance of stories resonated deeply with me, as I increasingly see stories as the primary channel for interrelating with each other. In particular, the emphasis on everyone not just being able to listen to others' stories but to tell their stories is significant. I've often read, thought and written about input, processing and output, and believe that output is crucial for effective processing of input. When I am reading something, an intention to write about it really helps motivate me to understand it more thoroughly, which is one of the many reasons I enjoy the practice of blogging. And, I'm only half way through the book, and I was already concerned that I'd be too overwhelmed by information, knowledge and culture overload by the end to write anything coherent (in a short space). So when I came across the following passage, I decided to post an entry just about this, and not worry (so much) about the bigger picture:

Since the stories play a substantive role in individuals' perceptions of how they might live their lives, that practical difference [between evening-only vs. anytime storytelling] alters the capacity of individual Blues and Greens to perceive a wide and diverse set of options, as well as to exercise control over their perceptions and evaluations of options open for living their lives and to exercise the freedom themselves to be storytellers.


Gertrude [a Green] has many more stories and storytelling settings to choose from, and many more instances where she can offer her own stories to others in her society.

She, and everyone else in her society, can be exposed to a wider variety of conceptions of how life can and ought to be lived.

This wider diversity of perceptions gives her greater choice and increases her ability to compose her own life story out of the more varied materials at her disposal.

She can be more self-authored than either Ron [a Red] or Bob [a Blue].

This diversity replicates, in large measure, the range of perceptions of how one might live a life that can be found among all Greens, precisely because the storytelling customs make every Green a potential storyteller, a potential source of information and inspiration about how one might live one's life. [emphasis mine]

That is, the Green society thrives [in part] through mutual inspiration! Yes! This is what really keeps me coming back to blogging. Although I write my blog primarily for my own benefit (and as I've noted earlier, in a post on unfolding through blogging, I'm increasingly aware that anything I say or write in any medium is primarily, if not solely, for my own benefit), I am always delighted, and often surprised, to discover that, occasionally, something I've written turns out to be of interest, use or perhaps even inspiration for someone else. And, of course, blogging offers a great channel for me to process the inspiration I glean from others' blogs, books and other media. Dan Oestreich's most recent post, about Leading is Not Acting: What Roles Do You Play?, incorporating comments to his blog as well as other bloggers' posts, is an excellent illustration of mutual inspiration in the blogosphere ... and offers some interesting insights into the stories we make up and tell about ourselves.

So this idea of mutual inspiration propelling the blogosphere (if not the entire emerging networked information economy that Benkler writes of) reminded me of mutual information:

In probability theory and information theory, the mutual information, or transinformation, of two random variables is a quantity that measures the mutual dependence of the two variables. [from Wikipedia]

Mutual information statistics underlie many of the relevancy algorithms used in information retrieval and machine learning. As more and more people utilize various dimensions of the architecture of participation represented by Web 2.0, and the notion of a person as a user (consumer) is transformed into the notion of person as a participant (producer and consumer), perhaps these traditional measures of mutual information can be refined to capture and process mutual inspiration, as reflected in the cross-linking conversations that emerge in the blogosphere. I wouldn't be surprised if some elements of inspiration are already included in the information used by search engines, but I suspect there is room for an alternative approach that places greater emphasis on the stories we tell to and about each other.

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