On the ‘Berkman School’ and its limits

December 5th, 2009 by Graham

Tim Hwang has a remarkable essay looking at what he’s provisionally calling “The Berkman School of Thought” based loosely upon the community surrounding the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. The original post is a must-read. He proposes four pillars of Berkman School thought:

  • Faith in users and emergent collaboration
  • Civics as the center of attention
  • “The Internet” as a specific configuration of features
  • Faith in Internet as revolution

I started writing a comment on his post, but it got lengthy, so here we are.

There is probably a lot that can be said on the topic of a “Berkman School” and its relationship to cyberoptimism. Hwang notes that many Berkmanites tend to be optimistic about the Internet’s transformative potential, but that notes of caution sometimes emerge, as from Ethan Zuckerman and Eszter Hargittai. I might add Rebecca MacKinnon to that list.

I’m curious about two things.

One is how we might understand other “schools” of thought on Internet and society. Certainly many others could be suggested. There is a problem, however, in looking for groups of thought on the Internet in that many of the non-Berkman-type perspectives are rooted not in discourse directly about the Internet but rather in academic disciplines, policy communities, or business communities.

When political scientists, sociologists, or policy scholars take to understanding the Internet and society, they bring their communities’ theoretical contexts into play. Carving out schools might be easiest if the criteria for delineation are assumption-based rather than content-based. I think this is what Hwang is on to when he talks about “faith” in various principles. But if those are the principles, MacKinnon’s work on “cybertarianism” and Hargittai’s work on web-use divides and socioeconomic status, for example, might tend to put them farther from the Berkmanite epistemic community, despite their personal affiliations with the center.

Moreover, Benkler’s work reaches out toward social and economic theory while also engaging with the particular story of the Internet.

Two is how US- or democracy-specific are these assumptions, and to what extent the center’s physical home at Harvard Law School affects some of these assumptions. Many participants in this line of thought are not American, but that doesn’t remove the fact that freedoms, free speech, and liberal democracy seem to be key motivating factors. I think this is similar to what commenter Jillian C. York mentions at Hwang’s post.

This is important because many Berkmanites are activists as well as thinkers. In political terms, many of these projects, their coordinated action, and their claims making vis à vis various business and government bodies could mean it’s most reasonable to think of a Berkman School as more of a Berkman-like movement. Without rambling on about the ties between schools of thought and political movements, I just thought that would be an interesting thing to point out.

I hope this discussion continues.

3 Responses to “On the ‘Berkman School’ and its limits”

  1. Mapping Out The Space: “Zittrainism” and More « Says:

    […] From a conversation with Graham Webster about how to start to map out the intellectual space about the internet beyond the Berkman School by using the old school polysci trick of putting everything into a 2×2 grid. Here, we’re varying the first two pillars/assumptions of the Berkman School, holding all else constant. For the first assumption, we vary whether or not the group of assumptions has relatively greater faith and emphasis on users or institutions in shaping the web. For the second, we vary whether or not the group of assumptions places importance on “The Internet” as a particular set of features and characteristics, or is more agnostic between various forms for different purposes. Doing so seems to make a variety of interesting positions fall out. […]

  2. Tim Hwang Says:

    Thanks for this comment! Really interesting to get to hear the reaction to the post.

    Fascinated by the concept of trying to map out the intellectual space beyond the Berkman Center (or even trying to figure out what the splinter positions are in the overall discussion). One approach that I’ve been playing around with is to take the set of assumptions that seem core to the Berkmanites and go through systematically, varying each of the assumption, and seeing what falls out. It’s led to some interesting results: http://brosephstalin.com/2009/12/08/mapping-out-the-space-zittrainism-and-more/. Once that’s out in the open, it’d be neat to lay these chronologically, to start to build a coherent story about how these positions have interacted.

    Agreed on the particular narrowness that all this may be to a certain extent US-centric or democracy-specific. Though the Berkman School’s pretty cosmopolitan and international in its outlook, would be interested in the ideas floating around other intellectual communities around the world and their concept of the web. I’m sadly less familiar with that literature and that space, unfortunately — thoughts on where might be good to look? Figuring it might be worth looking at Berkman’s traditional enemies, and trying to pull out a “school” of thought from less academic actors, like you suggest.

  3. Kevin Donovan Says:

    Still thinking through all this, but it reminds me of some of the writings Adam Thierer has done: