Peer production is itself a subset of a larger body of thought about networks and society. It tends to view a wired society as a fundamentally different one—less hierarchical, more democratic, more collaborative, freer, even more authentic—from those that preceded it. Manuel Castells, an important network theorist, contends that technology will transform nothing less than “the process of formation and exercise of power relationships.” Or as Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it, the Internet is about to “flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”
If some aspects of peer-production theory and its FON offshoot sound familiar—anti-institutionalism; communitarianism laced with libertarianism; a millennial, Age-of-Aquarius vibe; a certain militancy—some scholars have traced its roots to 1960s counterculture. Fred Turner, a Stanford communications theorist and a cautionary voice on the potential of peer production, chronicled the development of a network of 1960s idealists surrounding Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of both the Whole Earth Catalog, the iconic communitarian manual, in 1968, and Wired, a New Economy-era magazine that is still the digital bible, in 1993. These “New Communards,” as Turner calls them, drew from California’s defense-centered research culture as well as the counterculture to become the vanguard of the digital revolution, helping transform the very idea of the computer from a symbol of bureaucracy and control to one of personal and social liberation.
Clearly, as I’ve written, there is a culture gap between the peer-production advocates and professional journalism, it seems safe to say. Where a professional journalist might think of the glories of “Watergate,” peer-production adherents would think “pre-Iraq War coverage.” Where establishment journalism might fondly recall elegant Wall Street Journal narratives and great regional exposés at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald, FON adherents think “pre-financial crisis Wall Street coverage” and “Gannett.” In this, they have a point. What’s more, peer-production advocates have had to face down some predictably defensive and mule-headed responses from segments of the old guard.
But the more I read the more I came to understand some of the euphoria we heard in some circles at the collapse of old media, a circumstance most of us here viewed as a disaster. I came across some media criticism and journalism scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s, and, it pays to remember a lot of the concerns were about monolithic media concentration, the idea that the power of the press - this cornerstone of democracy—had been consolidated into a few hands, and not always particularly public-spirited hands either. Ben Bagdikian wrote The Media Monopoly in 1983, and in 1989, I noticed, he updated it with a piece called “the Lords of the Global Village,” asserting things had only gotten worse—his targets were Gannett, Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, Time Inc., Bertelsmann, and the like. James Carey, a Columbia journalism professor and wonderful cultural critic who died in 2006 and wrote mostly before the mainstreaming of the Internet, argued for what he called a journalism of conversation as a sort of connective tissue of democracy. He bridled at a press that he perceived talked at its readers rather than with them. In a 1991 essay, he wrote:
Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can only be generated by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it A press that encourages conversation of its culture is the equivalent of an extended town meeting. However, if the press sees its role as limited to informing whoever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency of carrying on the conversation of the culture.
He goes on to say such a press treats readers as objects rather than subjects of democracy. You see a lot of Carey in future of news discourse. Some of us were actually working inside the monolith and so it’s harder for us to know what it felt like to be on the outside.