How Peer to Peer Communities Will Change the World

Many of you, while hearing the words “peer to peer”, would instantly remember Napster, eMule and the plethora of technologies and solutions for file sharing that allow the free exchange of files of any type, with the associated problems and controversies related to copyright protection.In reality, the term P2P refers, since a long time now, to the range of solutions, paradigms and approaches focusing on co-design (collaborative design) and co-creation, openness and freedom: that is, each decentralized, shared, distributed, equal mean to provide free and open solutions to common problems.

Technology and technology platforms (and software in particular) therefore are just one of the many aspects of this movement, which poses no limits whatsoever: the long-term goal is to facilitate the emergence and consolidation of peer made communities to play a new role, a role that is traditionally a prerogative of companies and industries, according to the model of capitalistic production of goods and services.

The peer production model stands quite in opposition to neoliberalism but, inevitably, P2P processes both transform, but also adapt, to the existing society: this synthesis is perhaps the only way out of the historical problems humanity is facing these days. Open, equal and participatory platforms and paradigms, able to put people in direct contact with each other, shown tremendous potential during recent years: with the mission to help other p2p alternatives to emerge and consolidate, the “Foundation for P2P alternatives” was founded by Michel Bauwens years ago. Michel is an amazing speaker, researcher, analyst and writer: the very perfect person to help us investigate the impacts that these changes, those summarized in this piece today, will hopefully have on the world to come.

[Simone Cicero]: What is today’s role of p2p movement in the world? What level of adoption has this paradigm reached so far?

[Michel Bauwens]: My answer is that the p2p movement has a very important historical role to play, but that it is rather difficult to quantify this. First, what do we mean by the p2p movement? The underlying set of causes is due to the horizontalisation of human relationships that are enabled with the new peer to peer technologies, understood in the very broad sense of allowing the free aggregation of individuals around shared values or common value creation. This is of course a huge sociological shift. We could argue that an emerging socio-cultural vanguard is actively building new life forms, social practices and human institutions, some of which I have tried to map out here. So all around the world emergent communities of practice are developing new social practices that are informed by the p2p paradigm. On an other level this is also ethical revolution, with the growth of core values such as openness and freedom regarding the shared ‘input’ into peer production processes; participation and inclusivity as to the process of cooperation, and a commons orientation (universal distribution) as to the output of the process. Economically for example, one recent study estimated the open content industry in the U.S. to reach one sixth of GDP. Finally, there are the new political expressions. I consider the European occupied squares mobilizations to be expressions of the emerging p2p mentality. You could say the movement has two wings, a constructive wing of people building new tools and practices, as for example described in Chris Carlsson’s book Nowtopia, and a more active wing of resistance to neoliberalism, which is groping for a new way of conceiving social change, that is not a carbon copy of the old left approaches. Nevertheless, we are at a stage of emergence, not a level of parity with the mainstream neoliberal world yet.

[MB]: That’s a good question. The difference is related to the difficulty of implementing full p2p solutions in the current dominant system. Collaborative consumption is more easy, and can be organized by firms that take charge of the collective product-service system infrastructure, and they can either invest in a shared infrastructure or develop a platform for sharing what is already available (the latter could also be done by communities and nonprofits). Production can be done in the immaterial sphere of knowledge, code and design without too much difficulty, but hits many problems once you want to translate it into physical production, which is costly. At this stage, there is a co-dependency between peer producers creating value, and for-profit firms ‘capturing that value’, but they both need each other. Peer producers need a business ecology to insure the social reproduction of their system and financial sustainability of its participants, and capital needs the positive externalities of social cooperation which flow from p2p collaboration. My own proposal is that peer producing communities should create their own ‘mission-oriented’ social businesses, so that the surplus value remains with the value creators, i.e. the commoners themselves, but this is hardly happening now. Instead what we see is a mutual accomodation between netarchical capital on one side, and peer production communities on the other. Where the horizontal meets the vertical, you get mostly hybrid ‘diagonal’ adaptations. The crucial question then becomes: “how do we adapt”, when does adaptation become cooptation if not worse, pure exploitation. You could say that this is the class struggle of the 21st century, between the two emerging classes that in my opinion, will be the major factors in the transition towards a new type of society. For peer producers the question becomes, if we cannot create our own fully autonomous institutions, how can we adapt while maintaining maximum autonomy and sustainability as a commons and as a community.

[SC]: Why p2p have failed to create successful alternatives in some areas? For example in social networks, things like diaspora has been marginal up to now and we rely on commercial entities, sometimes corporations, to empower the peer community of doing great things (for example thinking about Maghreb and middle-est movements). Is there an issue in this? I mean third, commercial entities running huge peer communities that build value, allowing them to make huge profits?

[MB]: In commons-oriented peer production, where people aggegrate around a common object which requires deep cooperation, they usually have their own infrastructures of cooperation and a ecology combining community, a for-benefit association managing the infrastructure, and for-profit companies operating on the market place; in the sharing economy, where individuals merely share their own expressions, third party platforms are the norm. It is clear that for-profit companies have different priorities, and want to enclose value so that it can be sold on the marketplace. This in fact the class struggle of the p2p era, the struggle between communities and corporations around various issues because of partly differential interests. So, this tension is certainly an issue, but as your example indicates, it is not crucial. Even commercially controlled platforms are being used for a massive horizontalisation and self-aggregation of human relationships, and communities, including political and radical groups are effectively using them to mobilize. What’s important is not just to focus on the limitations and intentions of the platform owners, but to use whatever we can to strengthen the autonomy of peer communities. Sometimes this requires a clever adaptation to whatever the status quo is already producing. Important questions are: what imperfect means can we use for our own benefit; what infrastructures really need to be independent of control, what do we need to demand from platform owners who ‘exploit’ free labour without giving anything in return. For example, the Free Culture Forum demands a 15% share in the revenue generated, in order to sustain the creative commoners.

The fact today is that capital is still capable of marshaling vast financial and material resources, so that it can create, like Google, YouTube, Facebook, etc … platforms that can easily and quickly offer services, creating network effects that are very difficult, but not theoretically impossible, to emulate by ‘pure’ P2P plays which may not have the same facility to marshal resources so quickly and efficiently. The problem with Diaspora is that, without network effects, there is no ‘there’ there, just an empty potential platform. If you want to reach people, you still need to be where they effectively are, i.e. in the mainstream platforms. But p2p activists should work on both fronts, i.e. using mainstream platforms for spreading their ideas and culture and reach greater numbers of people, while also developing their own autonomous media ecologies, that can operate independently, and the latter is an engagement for the ‘long haul’, i.e. the slow construction of an alternative lifeworld.

[SC]: Are the commons the real p2p application field or we can think of p2p being used also as a potential model for profit applications?

[MB]: The commons and p2p are really just different aspects of the same phenomena; the commons is the object that p2p dynamics are building; and p2p takes place wherever there are commons. Remember, I don’t use p2p in a technological sense, but in a sociological sense, as a type of relationship. So both p2p and the commons, as they create abundant (digital) or sufficient (material) value for the commoners, at the same time create opportunities to create added value for the marketplace. There is no domain that is excluded from p2p, no field that can say, “we wouldn’t be stronger by opening up to participation and community dynamics”. And there is no p2p community that can say, we are in the long term fully sustainable within the present system, without extra resources coming from the market sector.

[SC]: Could the adoption of p2p currencies like Bitcoin ease the fusion of p2p value production systems with commercial/trading aspects?

[MB]: We have to be careful here. One trend is the distribution of current infrastructures and practices, i.e. introducing crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, social lending, digital currencies, in order to achieve wider participation in current practices. That is a good thing, but not sufficient. All the things that I mention above, move to a distributed infrastructure, but do not change the fundamental logic of what they are doing. In the case of bitcoin, it is a scarcity-based money, subject to the same speculative forces as rare metals, it operates fully within the logic of capital; and so do social lending sites etc … What we really need is a second wave of distributed infrastructures, which also embed new ethical values. Bitcoin could operate with demurrage for example, or within the context of a credit commons. Social lending could be used for ‘slow money’ investment in ethical businesses or communities. Without that, we are talking about the distribution of capitalism, not about a deeper change in the logic of our economy.

[SC]: We, more and more often, see p2p solutions creating shortcuts where commercial systems don’t work or are not enough efficient, or simply costly (sometimes unreasonably): how, old fashioned companies, should adapt to p2p to avoid being outdated, outperformed, by p2p based alternatives?

[MB]: No matter how good you are, no matter how much capital you have to hire the best people, you cannot compete with the innovative potential of open global communities. It is this that drives every business to adapt in some way or another, to the p2p dynamics. As a company, you get more innovation, a deeper linkage within networks, lower cost structures, and many more competitive advantages. But it also comes as a price, i.e. the necessary adaptation to the rules and norms of the new networked culture and the particular communities you are working with. And the opposite is also happening, as we outlined above, more and more commons-oriented value communities are creating their own entrepreneurial coalitions. Of course, some type of companies, because of their monopoly positions and legacy systems, may have a very difficult time undergoing that adaptation, in which case new players will appear that can do it more effectively.

[SC]: Is a “new kind of company” needed to embed the peer production model or new kind of “community” to embed trading, profit aspects?

[MB]: Absolutely, the corporate form is unable to deal with ecological and sustainability issues, because its very DNA, the legal obligation to enrich the shareholders, makes its strive to lower input costs, and ignore externalities. For a for-profit company, what is legal is ethical, and external regulation can only moderate such behaviours. This means that ‘regulation’ must also be internal, and for this, we need new corporate structures, a new type of market entity, for which profit is a means, but not an end, dedicated to a ‘benefit‘, a ‘mission’, or the sustenance of a particular community and/or commons. Following lasindias.net, I use the concept of phyles. and the P2P Foundation itself has created such a global coop that aims to make the work on the P2P knowledge commons sustainable. These new entities should become the core of a new private sector, and that are structurally inherently sustainable.

[SC]: Is there a special link between resource crisis, peak oil, and sustainability topics in general, and the p2p movement? Is sustainability a substantial attribute of p2p, decentralized, collective systems?

[MB]: I make a strong argumentation about this link. In my opinion, for-profit companies are inherently non-sustainable in their DNA, because they depend on scarcity, i.e. abundance destroys scarcity and therefore markets; one particular pernicious practice is planned obsolescence. But a open design community has no such perverse incentives and will inherently design for sustainability. It will also design for inclusion, to allow others to add to the design; and finally, it will also conceive more distributed forms of manufacturing, that do not require financial and geographic centralisation. Ecars for example, produces conversion designs for hybrid cars, so that any mechanic in the world can download the design and work at your car locally. The Common Car is designed modularily with a biodegradable skin that can be exchanged without needing a full new car. This means that entrepreneurs attaching themselves to open design projects start working from an entirely different space, even if they still use the classic corporate form. Prevent the sharing of sustainability designs through IP monopolies is also in my view unethical and allowing such patents should be a minimalist option, not a maximalist one.

[SC]: How is your feeling today about the “high road” vs “low road” perspective?

[MB]: The high road scenario proposes an enlightened government that ‘enables and empowers’ social production and value creation and allows a much smoother transition to p2p models; the low road scenario is one in which no structural reforms take place, the global situation descends into various forms of chaos, and p2p becomes a survival and resilience tactic in extremely difficult social, political and economic circumstances. The problem today is that the social movements are too weak to impose structural reforms, though that could change and is changing as we speak, see the mobilisations on the European squares; but also that the classic economic 60- year “Kondratieff wave”, which ended with the 2008 meltdown, is compounded with the biospheric and other crises (climate change, sixth great extinction, peak oil), which in my view signal the accelerated end of capitalism. While I’m confident that the infinite growth system is nearing its usability, this does of course not mean that what replaces it will be better. Making sure that we get a better alternative is actually the historical task of the p2p movement. In other words, it depends on us!

[SC]: What are the next potentially breakthrough applications of P2P model?

[MB]: I don’t really think in terms of technological breakthroughs, because the essential one, globally networked collective intelligence enabled by the internetworks, is already behind us; that is the major change, all other technological breakthroughs will be informed by this new social reality of the horizontalisation of our civilisation. The important thing now is to defend and extend our communication and organisation rights, against a concerted attempt to turn back the clock. While the latter is really an impossibility, this does not mean that the attempts by governments and large corporations cannot create great harm and difficulties. We need p2p technology to enable the global solution finding and implementation of the systemic crises we are facing. Stopping this, in fact endangers the future of the earth and humanity. We are living in a bio-pathic system, which literally destroys the basis of human and natural life; and p2p is needed to ensure the transition to a biophilic civilisation, which ensures the continuity of our natural habitat and its gifts to humanity. Technology is just a tool, though a very important one, for transformation, but we should avoid any technological determinism as well as misguided utopianism depending on the next big magical breakthrough of technology.

[Simone Cicero]

http://meedabyte.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/how-peer-to-peer-communities-will-change-the-world-interview-with-michel-bauwens-p2p-foundation-founder