Skip to content

On The Berkman School of Thought

December 3, 2009

I’ve been enthralled lately reading the amazing bit of scholarship that is Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies. The big idea of the massive 900-page something or another tome, which is pretty intuitive but amazing to see played out across a huge swath of historical research, is that intellectual thought is primarily the product of social processes. To that end, he argues, you can track the course of a school or frame of thinking by closely examining who scholars and intellectuals hang out with and associated themselves with through history. There’s some neat things in there that he argues about the behavior of growing or failing schools of thought, and it’s all pretty great. Collins’ focus is on traditions in philosophical thinking, but I’ve been thinking alot about how this might apply to other fields as well, particularly to scholarship and popular discussion about the internet that’s emerged in the past two decades.

Obviously, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and its sprawling list of digerati that have passed through there over the past ten years and change, is a nice place to start such a discussion. Much of the conversation and scholarship happening there has influenced a great deal of the popular rhetoric around the web in the past decade, and looks to continue to for the foreseeable future.

So, the question: if there is one at all, what constitutes the Berkman School of Thought? What are the underlying assumptions unfolding and undergirding the community of thinkers that have surrounded the Center?

I think the attempt to do this is a fun exercise on two counts. First, laying out these ideas clearly and mapping them against other schools of thought that might exist seems to be a good way of assessing where the Center has been, where it might go, and what intellectual challenges it might face in the future. Second, the task of reordering and putting the existing scholarship into context seems useful, since it forms the basis for creating an intellectual history of thinking about the internet (which, in turn, would be neatly badass).

I’m drawing broadly here from the general swath of classic and new Berkman texts and projects — Wealth of Networks, Free Culture, Cluetrain Manifesto, Born Digital,  The Chilling Effects Project, and so on. The following isn’t meant to be comprehensive — I’m just trying to capture the overall gestalt of some of the basic assumptions that Berkmanites (and their allies) have generally agreed on, and lay the groundwork for them to communicate and collaborate about anything. Obviously, in the same way you use terms like “The Frankfurt School,” or “The Trekkies,” there’s bound to be varieties and nuances in the positions that individuals thinkers take. My attempt here is to sift through and make sense of it all, and approach the outcomes and intentions of the research as forming a bigger picture of what people believe. The use of the word “school” is deliberate here as well — I’m referring to more than the physical Center. It captures everything from the latest speech given by Tim O’Reilly, the student activism around Free Culture, even to the themes underlying BoingBoing — indeed, anything conversant to a certain style of thinking. “Berkman” is just a label here.

Thinking through it, I’m seeing that there’s arguably four pillars to the “Berkman School” or “Berkman Style” of thought about the web.

1) Faith in Users and Emergent Collaboration

The lesson that the Berkman School draws from case studies of projects like Wikipedia is that users can be fundamentally trusted to contribute, cooperate, and occasionally make works of enormous talent. From this also springs an enormous faith in open crowd-sourcing as a way of solving problems, since generous, giving users naturally should play well together. Moreover, crowd-sourcing brings emergent collaboration and amateur innovation to exert enormous effort for a given problem.

Obviously, the standout text on this is The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it’s evident in a whole range of works that have been generated by members of the Berkman School. It also is present in the Center’s general resistance against the outright trolling works of Andrew Keen, and its objections to the more sophisticated challenges presented by people like Cass Sunstein and the thesis. It also appears in their approaches to problem solving. The Herdict project plays with this logic rather strongly — trusting that uncoordinated amateur contributions will evolve to assist in the detection of accessibility and inaccessibility on the web.

There’s also a corollary to this, I think, about how the Berkman School downplays the dangers of the web. This is particularly true in the perspective that takes a stand and argues that children, by and large, aren’t at danger online from predators since their nuanced use of the web and selective choices about the information they reveal on it help them avoid threatening situations.

2) Civics as the Center of Attention

The internet, broadly used and influential technology as it is, requires any group of thinkers to settle on what issues are the most important changes wrought and worth studying. To that end, the Berkman School has tended to focus on the web as changing the realm of civics — broadly defined as the relationship of the individual to the organization and operation of the public sphere. This embraces the Berkman Center’s traditional focus on the law and intellectual property, as well as its focus on the human rights issues that surround the proliferation of the web. It also captures the School’s interest in topics as broad as the structure of governance (Sunlight Foundation), the participation of digital natives in the community (Digital Natives Project), and the future of the university.

Needless to say, this does leave out or generally de-emphasize other ways of slicing and discussing the effects of the web as a whole. This applies not only on the more qualitative side — whether it be in examining popular web culture or communities, art, or media theory — but also on the quantitative side as well — social network analysis, for example, is a much smaller part of the Berkman perspective (or even the “Berkman Method”)

3) “The Internet” As Specific Configuration of Features

For the Berkman School, the internet isn’t just computers and the connections between them. It isn’t “just” technology. It’s a kind of technological network that possesses very particular features. When the Berkman School invokes “the internet,” then, they are referring to something quite specific. Digitally, it’s an open space (where behavior is transparent and visible), a free space (in that there are little restrictions on content and behavior and contribution is broadly permitted), and an unfathomably deep space (in that the access to and existence of content is massive and covers nearly everything you might want to experience).

This is what the internet is. Things that fall out of this category are somehow “not” the internet in some sense, a crippled version of what the internet really is. Accordingly, things like the Great Firewall of China are “not” the internet, or at least not the one that we would want. Indeed, the famous John Gilmore’s quip that “The Internet detects censorship as damage, and routes around it,” has this assumption baked right in.

The one outlier here in recent memory is The Future of the Internet, which makes a pretty fierce argument that the current configuration of features that exists now is merely a historical, provisional result. The “internet” could exist otherwise — less free, more tethered, and so on — and his book argues that the prospect of that is real. Zittrain is making a pretty unique jump here — and its worth noting that his book has to uniquely suggest easing traditional absolutes on the net neutrality issue as a result.

4) Faith in Internet as Revolution

For the Berkman School, there’s a very strong normative slant to the nature of the internet in its particular configuration. It’s democratized expression, opened up new ways for people to communicate to one another, and made life more difficult for repressive regimes (a la Benkler). For the large part, there is support for these upheavals among Berkmanites. But even beyond arguing whether or not it is for the good or bad, there’s another deeper assumption at work: the Berkman School asserts that the internet has fundamentally changed things in a real and inescapable way.

The relevant representative text here is The Wealth of Networks, which credits the internet with not only enabling an unprecedented new form of production, but making an entirely different kind of human motivation significant on a central, society-wide level.

Every revolution needs adversaries to the newness it presents, of course, and the internet is no exception. This is partially a result of #3. If you believe truly in the internet as a particular bundle of features and qualities (and support those qualities), then people who are out to resist these qualities or change them are “baddies” in a very real sense. They are resisting progress, propping up dead business models, and so on. These two groups are diametrically opposed and destined for clash, with options of cooperation or co-existence unlikely. Accordingly, the ultimate drama of Networks, and the thing that casts it particularly in this vein, is Benkler’s general argument that the motivations of commons-based peer production are at odds with established authority, and that conflict over it characterizes all the various battlefields that the web is engaged in.

It’s also worth noting that this is quite distinct from trying to argue that that the Berkman School is a group of blanket cyberoptimists, blindly believing that the web is going to triumph over all or be good for everything. Indeed, the work of Ethan Zuckerman and Eszter Hargittai point out the many flaws in believing that the internet is in some way uniformly changing everything, everywhere and everyone (and uniformly thinking that it’s for the better). But it seems likely from their work that they would agree that something has changed, and that “something” is remaking the world in a big way that is unlikely to be eventually reversed.

Combining each of these positions defines a particular intellectual space, within which the cadence of discussion and scholarship takes on a particular tone. Indeed changing any one of these base assumptions would bring you to quite a different body of scholarship about the internet and its implications/prescriptions for society more generally. Interestingly, it would also open new vistas in the kinds of tools used in research, and how arguments are made.

This is just an initial cut — I think the next steps would be to sketch out how this might be influenced and challenged by changes in the structure of the web. Or, alternatively, to begin to play around with other versions of these assumptions and try to match them to various other non-Berkman School intellectuals as a way of testing the model or thinking about the other schools of thought in practice.

In any case, this is an ongoing project. Thoughts? Am I missing any pillars here? Are these inaccurate characterizations? Also, another interesting question, using this as a rubric, what are the other major intellectual schools of thought in thinking about the web?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2009 11:35 pm

    I think you might be using the word “faith” too liberally. There is definitely an “east coast pessimism” (as Zittrain put it recently, and who is at least partly responsible for it) emanating from Berkman at times.

  2. Tim Hwang permalink*
    December 4, 2009 4:41 pm

    I could see that. In the way I’m characterizing it, I guess Zittrain would be classified as a “post-Berkman” or “neo-Berkman” thinker in that respect — particularly because of some of his pessimism around security and the general inability of the public to accurately assess what they’re giving up by adopting tethered technologies.

    But, in the vein of the classic Berkman tradition, still think “faith” is the right word. I mean — CC (as an artifact of the Berkman school) is probably the hugest leap of real faith on the user in the past decade I can think of. It not only expects the large swath of content creators to proactively think through content usage, but also for them to even care about and respect IP in the first place.

    Dunno, maybe “confidence” or “trust” captures it better? What do you think?

  3. December 4, 2009 4:59 pm

    Very interesting, Tim! I have no idea how to properly word this, but I feel as though one major thing is left out: the focus on “freedom” e.g., free speech, net neutrality, etc., a la ONI, Herdict etc.

    Very clear, eh? 😉

  4. December 5, 2009 1:40 am

    Actually the biggest impact CC will have in the next 5 years will come from large institutions (government, universities, foundations, businesses) that will be able to set institutional sharing policies. These institutions have the the incentive to spend a relatively tiny amount of resources to learn about CC to implement it in their policies (and of course they already respect IP in the first place).

    • Tim Hwang permalink*
      December 8, 2009 4:36 am

      I agree! But I think that direction is a new one, particularly given the trajectory of where CC first started and the general rhetoric of grassroots activism around the licensing during the past 5 years. It marks a real shift I think, and a change from the original Berkman School of framing the issue (and, accordingly, its solutions)

      I think Ito’s recent rhetoric plays into an institutional frame that shifts the first Berkman assumption in some sense, demphasizing the emergent power of users to do everything by themselves, and emphasizing the role that large stakeholders and the government have in the shape/fate of the web.

      It’s the direction taken by Lessig with his rationale in starting Change Congress, what Berkman’s done with bringing about GNI, and so on. Maybe we can place this as a daughter school in tracing the history of thought about the web?

  5. jaymztay permalink
    December 5, 2009 3:18 am

    To echo Jill. Yeah where’s the ONI and the focus on freedom of expression? If you think about it. It runs through the veins of every pillar..the Internet as freedom.

    • Tim Hwang permalink*
      December 8, 2009 4:52 am

      Been thinking about this a bit — I guess it depends on your point of view, but it kind of rolls into a classic libertarian two-faces-or-a-vase problem.

      It’s either a “zeroth” pillar of the Berkman School, in some sense, that freedom — before anything else — is something worth defending as a value. The Internet promotes and fosters that, so by connection it’s something worth defending.

      Or, flipping it around — a commitment to freedom is an *emergent* pillar of the other four pillars of the Berkman School. If you trust users to generally make good decisions and collaborate constructively, and you think that civics are at the center of the web, then you protect freedom because anything else would only hinder progress.

      Thoughts? Not sure which side most Berkmanites would fall on — in any case, think you and Jill are right, affirmatively supporting freedom ends up being a fundamental part of the general Berkman outlook (as opposed to a more agnostic look that’s indifferent between the relative freedom or constraint of the web).

  6. December 5, 2009 3:36 am

    Really insightful, Tim. It gets me thinking about what the Internet would look like from the perspective of other schools of thought (something I’ve been exploring for Wikipedia specifically in a series of blog posts lately).

    Are there other coherent schools of thinking specifically about the Internet, or to get outside of the Berkman School do you have to move to schools of thought that generally don’t even care about the Internet?

  7. December 6, 2009 12:51 am

    This is a great post. I started writing a comment that got a bit long, so I’ve put it over at

    I think Sage’s question is interesting and that’s part of what I tried to address.

  8. December 7, 2009 3:26 pm

    I was also struck by the (repeated) use of the word “faith.” I wonder about the line between a “school of thought” and “dogma.” Not just re Berkman or the Internet, but in general.

    Just a passing thought there.

    Interesting post, and good comments, too.

  9. Jason permalink
    December 8, 2009 2:15 am

    This is a terrific post, and hopefully the beginnings of a broader project. As a law student who just today completed Benkler’s Internet Law and Policy class, I’ll propose a possible fifth pillar: the Berkmanite belief that really high-quality, “objective” empirical data about the nature and use of the Internet can genuinely drive policy decisions.

    This pillar is of course methodological rather than substantive, and so cuts across a few of the others. But I do think it’s noteworthy that Berkman-type arguments proceed most often not from some idealized vision of the Internet or from a hand-waving appeal to our everyday experiences with the Net, but with something far more systematic (or, some might say, inaccessible). Concerned about child predators? We’ve got data on that. Want to know how to proceed with your National Broadband Policy? We’ll synthesize results from the rest of the developed world and produce the optimal policy. And so on. In this sense, the Berkman school of thought often tries to be somewhat post-ideological; rather than capitulating to partisan bickering over some highly-charged issues, the Berkman-minded folks just want to show you their data. Their belief that, as Stewart Brand said, “the right information in the right place just changes your life” thus translates not just into an attitude that the Internet is fundamentally a force for good but also into a mode of argument that trusts that “facts” can and should drive policy.

    Whether their empirical findings are in fact driving the cyberoptimism or whether the cyberoptimism is in some way driving the research is another question, however, that I think is quite complicated.

    • Tim Hwang permalink*
      December 8, 2009 4:43 am

      Jason — absolutely! Just tracing out all the possibilities at this point and seeing where it leads the discussion, would be fascinated if this becomes part of a larger project.

      Really like your comment, strikes me that in what I’ve written here there’s a distinction to be made, perhaps theory and method.

      I’m thinking here to the history of science, where there’s a track of historical work that builds on the various arguments that intellectuals have in forging a consensus about a “thing” (say, physics), and there’s an equally interesting history about the instruments those intellectuals build to marshal evidence (say, “the particle accelerator”)

      So with a Berkman School, also an evolution of a Berkman Method? What do you think? It’s true they’re not completely disaggregated, but separate in some sense. It’s made particularly difficult because study about the internet has been so ferociously interdisciplinary.

  10. December 13, 2009 10:23 pm

    Tim, this is great.

    I’m also interested in another characteristic of Berkman that I find compelling – that it places itself at the intersection of thinking and doing. From CC to Herdict Web, Berkman has used an entrepreneurial attitude to exert its normative worldview. It seems to me that other schools of thought have not always done this – publishing is one thing, but creating tools and services as an outcome of that writing is more unique.


  11. December 13, 2009 10:25 pm

    Also, as for other schools of thought on the Internet, have you taken a look at this piece by Adam Thierer:

    And Geert Lovenik’s work:

  12. January 15, 2010 6:33 pm

    Thanks for this post-I also enjoy reading and writing regarding the internet.
    Zittrain’s argument in his book does seem to take into greater account the role of the *many* factors that led to the ‘net ‘s current form, though recognizing that there could be a different structure than that which we are working with (and for) now if some or several of those factors were different than they had been.

    That said, I am also a proponent of the positive dividends that come from the deep-rooted belief in open/open-source.

  13. January 15, 2010 6:34 pm

    **Make that : “THROUGH recognizing that there could be a different structure”


  1. infopolitics » Blog Archive » On the ‘Berkman School’ and its limits
  2. Mapping Out The Space: “Zittrainism” and More «
  3. Reading blogs #21 : ::: Think Macro :::
  4. Internet Studies‽ « = thornet =

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Twitter Updates

  • Elsewhere!

  • Pages

  • December 2009
    M T W T F S S
  • Archives

  • Meta

  • %d bloggers like this: