Broken Windows on the Internet

by on May 31, 2006

Patrick Ross critiques a recent presentation by Yochai Benkler:

To begin with, he praised open source software (not surprisingly) and also the collaborative nature of Wikipedia. He noted that Nature had found it to be comparable to Britannica (no, he didn’t mention the stinging rebuttal later published by Britannica of that article.) He also praised the computational power of SETI@Home, which exceeds the fastest supercomputer by tapping unused computing capacity of volunteers. SETI@Home and Wikipedia don’t contribute in any meaningful way to the US economy, but he ranked them in social importance far higher than any commercial encyclopedia or proprietary supercomputer.

How do we know that Wikipedia and SETI@Home don’t contribute in any meaningful way to the U.S. economy? Apparently, because no money changed hands. By the same logic, the sun and the air don’t contribute in any meaningful way to the U.S. economy.

As PLN pointed out back in March, this is a prime specimen of the broken window fallacy (which was originally described by Bastiat) in action. The resources consumed during the creation of the Encyclop¦dia Britannica are a loss to the rest of society. If society can get an equivalent-quality encyclop¦dia for free (that is, by a process in which each participant finds participation rewarding enough to do so without charge), that benefits all of us, because the resources that would have been spent hiring people to write the Britannica can be deployed for other ends.

Incidentally, Britannica does not appear to have an entry on the broken window fallacy, and the Wikipedia entry on Bastiat is ten times as long as the corresponding Britannica entry. Wikipedia may not be contributing anything to “the economy,” but it’s certainly doing a good job of making a lot of information available to a large number of people. That certainly seems valuable to me!

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