In new book, Benkler makes the case for “prosocial” systems design

 							 					For generations, the assumption that selfishness drives human behavior has shaped the design of social systems in which we live and work. In his new book “The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (Crown Publishing Group, August 2011),” Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler ’94 rejects this assumption as a “myth” and proposes an alternative, refreshingly optimistic model that asserts our human traits of cooperation and collaboration.

The study of cooperation is on the rise, says Benkler, an expert on the role of networks in business and society. In “The Penguin and the Leviathan,” he draws together strands of research by neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, management experts, computer scientists, software designers and others—along with vivid examples of prosocial behaviors observed in many cultures and corners of society, from Maine lobstermen to the British blood-banking system—to demonstrate that people already “act far more cooperatively and fairly than the old model would have us believe.”

This “old model” harks back to 1652, when philosopher Thomas Hobbes published “Leviathan,” arguing for rule by absolute sovereignty. Hobbes unleashed a monster, the “iconic image of a controlling state,” says Benkler, which ever since has cast its shadow over social contracts, spreading the dire message that “if left to our own devices, we’ll be at each other’s throats.” Overlaying this Hobbesian model of state control is the market-oriented Invisible Hand metaphor, introduced by economist Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), which assumes that “by each pursuing self-interest, we make things better for all of us,” not because we care for one another but because it is mutually advantageous.


Credit: Ellen Weinstein

The financial meltdown of 2008 has helped dethrone this view of humanity, demonstrating, as Benkler puts it, “that when you try to build a system wholly on self-interest, you end up with disaster.” Over the last decade a flood of new research in far-flung disciplines—such as practical management, software design, psychology and evolutionary biology—has produced “precise and refined work that tells us what we teach kids all the time: We care about doing what’s right, intuitive and fair.” While such diverse practitioners “don’t tend to cite or read each other,” Benkler notes, independently all are reaching the same conclusions: Designing social systems according to the “carrot-and-stick approach no longer makes sense,” and the “material self-interest focus has run its course.” This is not to say that self-interest should not play a part, but it is too flimsy a scaffolding to support a social system.

Watch video of Benkler discussing his new book at a recent HLS event, which was co-hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Law School Library.

Here’s where the “Penguin” of Benkler’s title waddles in. Benkler has borrowed “Tux,” the ubiquitous mascot of Linux, the free and open-source operating system, as his book’s symbol for massive collaboration. He also cites the example of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can access and edit and improve, which has exploded online from upstart experiment to everyday resource shared by millions. “I spent a lot of time in the first half of the last decade just getting people to accept that Wikipedia and its like are not passing fads,” Benkler says. “Now we need to see that Wikipedia’s underlying human motivations are not unique to the Net.”

The challenge is to incorporate prosocial—i.e., caring about and acting for the common good—motivations into human systems design. What does this entail? The last chapter in Benkler’s book summarizes the main elements—among them communication, unsurprisingly, as well as “framing” and authenticity. Empathy and solidarity are requisites for recognizing the humanity of others and expanding one’s sense of identity to include them. The right kind of leadership, too, is essential to adapt to a cooperative focus. (He cites the example of Robin Chase, founder and former CEO of Zipcar, the car-sharing company, whose communitarian views shaped Zipcar from its business model to its communications.) Also important: taking into account values, notions of fairness, and social “norms” for how people perceive things should work.

Pockets of sound prosocial design already exist all over, Benkler points out, and enlightening examples populate his book: Toyota’s famous NUMMI plant in Fresno, Calif., with its revolutionary cooperative management and production processes; Southwest Airlines, which has turned teamwork and egalitarianism into consistent profits in a beleaguered industry; the online community of volunteers, activists and donors at, who propelled the Obama presidential campaign to victory; Radiohead’s pay-as-you-wish downloading platform that put faith in their fans’ readiness to compensate fairly—the list is long.

Packed with stories and crisply summarized evidence, “The Penguin and the Leviathan” leapfrogs disciplines, connecting the dots from Hobbes to John Seely Brown. This little book starring the Penguin reaches out to general readers to urge a better, more complex and therefore more fully human design for the systems we all inhabit.