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Summer Reading: Crowds, Collaboration, Convergence and the Public

Summer is a great time to take a breath and open those books that stacked up during the press of events. I've been fascinated by the overlapping themes of collaboration, participation and convergence.

Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks (Yale) says that the distributed capabilities of emerging digital media give us all new opportunities to create media that enriches public life. Given the concerns of liberal democratic philosophers (think Habermas) and political scientists and sociologists, this could be great news. Grassroots, even anarchic media doesn't have to be great to be a lot better than mass media's pseudo-public sphere, he argues. That's why, Benkler says, we have to pay attention to policies that could inhibit the development of DIY media--such as net neutrality.

He's building on a solid platform here, not only of think tank activists in places such as Consumers Union and the Center for Digital Democracy, but also on other recent work like James Surowiecki's 2004 Wisdom of Crowds. There, the New Yorker columnist convinced us (or at least me) that crowds aren't stupider than smart individuals (and he went right up against K in Men in Black when he said that!). They are smarter than almost anybody in a particular crowd. That is, if people make independent choices, and they are truly diverse, and they can get the decentralization right.

Now here comes Henry Jenkins, with his just-out Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (NYU Press). He also sees a collaborative, participatory culture emerging out of video games, blogs, vlogs, and he too thinks this is--at least potentially--good for demopcracy, as new speakers aassert their power to participate. "We are just learning how to exerfcise that power--individually and collectively--and we are still fighting to define the terms under which we will be allowed to participate," he writes. "There are no guarantees that we will use our new power any more repsonsibly than nation-states or corporations have ercised theirs....We have a lot to learn." Jenkins is calling for a new media literacy, one that treats all media consumers as media makers in a "politics of participation."

Sign me up!