Beyond file-sharing, peer-to-peer is an alternative way of looking at work, live and the way we make money. Although mainstream media coverage of P2P has mostly focused its spotlights on the on-going debate around file-sharing and pirated media (music, movies, games), the social, economic, and political consequences of peer-to-peer go well beyond that narrow focus.
Michel Bauwens - Photo credit: Robin Good
The success of Wikipedia is a perfect example of how peer-to-peer collaboration extends well beyond the walls of pirated media. Wikipedia demonstrates that as a mode of production, peer-to-peer can succeed and even operate with efficiencies that closed systems cannot compete with.
Furthermore, p2p as a governance and economic model holds promises and solutions to problems that other models (including democracy and capitalism) are incapable of dealing with. As an economic model it can create new incentives to work. Rather than money being the driving force to create, as with capitalism, "voluntary passionate production" takes precedence.
Perhaps an even better example of how peer-to-peer can fundamentally affect (for the better) the world in which we live is the potential it has to alter our monetary system. The growing success of microlending and microlending institutions like Prosper has already demonstrated that even an entrenched social system like our financial system can benefit from becoming more distributed.
I think if you want to know what is wrong with capitalism and how peer-to-peer is an improvement over it, you have to look at the history of motivation and cooperation. Pre-modern societies were based on coercion / force - a slave had to give everything and serf had to give half or more of what was produced.
The dream of capitalism said that instead of forcing you, why don't we create mutual self interest, so we will just exchange things of equal value with each other. In a way that is great progress because we go from external negative motivation (fear) to external positive motivation (money).
The problem with that is that if you don't have money - if you don't have positive motivation on the outside, you don't do it. Also the problem is if you have a system based on self interest then no one looks at the other consequences. No one looks at pollution. And no one wants to do anything that is not paid.
Furthermore if you look at the way innovation works in a company you want to innovate and improve because you don't want to be buried under competition. If you don't have competition because it's a monopoly for example, then you don't improve. Look at Microsoft's Internet Explorer... nothing really moved for 5-7 years because Netscape was dead.
Now think about a peer production like Mozilla Firefox. These people want to innovate not to be better than the other guy, but because they just want to make the best possible browser. Firefox doesn't have to protect its property rights; anyone can make a plug-in. So Firefox is innovating all the time. It is moving all the time.
The genius of peer-to-peer is that it filters out negative outside motivation / positive outside motivation and focuses on internal motivation - voluntary passionate production. Your individual interest in improvement corresponds with the values of everyone within that organization. And the whole project is available to all of humanity via the network.
So in many ways if you do that, part of you is already outside of the market. You are learning to do things differently and not just out of pure self interest.
Yes, I just think it's an interesting proposal to think about. And the way I explain it is the following.
Right now we're split. We have two sides of our lives:
Now what we notice today, I think increasingly, is that actually the part of us, our surplus, is more productive than when we are in the system.
Now, that should tell the system something. So the system can start thinking. Well actually when people... let's assume they're unemployed... so between jobs you fall in a kind of intermediate period when you're jobless what before you used to think you're worthless, you have no value.
Today I will argue maybe is exactly in those moments you actually produce the most value for society.
I don't think we're there yet. I think that maturation of peer production might actually lead to the situation where I don't know, ten, twenty, thirty years from now, this becomes a really debatable issue.
It does happen very rarely. Because most people today have an inner sense that openness is better than enclosure. You know when they hear about free software and open-source development actually most people recognize that it's a good way of doing things. That if you want to cooperate you have to be open with each other.
So I think that actually peer-to-peer to has a potential unite many people that are politically opposed to each other because it has different values embedded. It has a freedom which liberals like and libertarians like. It has the equality aspect that people on the left like. It has a relation aspect that conservative people like, you know, being embedded in a community.
So what we have to do is look at the common interest of a group of people in advancing concretely the space for this to emerge. And not to overly politicize it and to a create kind of almost artificial oppositions.
Think about the market. Think about hierarchy and think about democracy. Those are simply three different ways to allocate resources.
Peer governance functions in the immaterial environment of intellectual cooperation over the networks. And you are basically self-aggregating your resources. So as long as you're self-aggregating your resources, you don't need any other way to aggregate your resources. You don't need a market, you don't need a hierarchy and you don't need democracy. And the type of relations you have is I voluntary contributed to other projects, so do you. And you don't pay me so why should I listen to you. So you need consensus. You need expertise. You need engagement and somehow and we see that it works that people can actually have very complex projects that are organized through peer governance. This is one side of the equation.
The other side of the equation is that in order to cooperate you have a number of fixed cost you need infrastructure of cooperation. You need servers. These servers are a renewable resource so you need a cost-recovery mechanism. So there you are in different domain. You actually need to allocate and protect resources. So what happens in peer production is in that environment people create nonprofits... the Mozilla Foundation, the Apache Foundation, Wikimedia Foundation. And they will manage the infrastructure of cooperation on behalf of the community. But because they have scarce resources, you need the democratic structure.
And so I would say overall a society is dealing not just with immaterial resources, but mostly with scarce material resources... with hunger, food, physical things. We still need democracy.
But to the degree that you did with intellectual cooperation, culture and knowledge, and open design, you are in peer governance. So what I think is happening is that... let's say that this is the volume of democracy we have in society. This is the volume of peer governance. It is that the space of peer governance will grow but we'll not totally replace the sphere of democracy. I think it's impossible as long as we live in a material world.
My dream is a world where more and more people can follow their passion... find meaning in their life... express themselves. And that more and more value is created that way.
In the current world we think that nature is infinite, and we think that we have to make things (intellectual, spiritual, cultural things) scarce artificially. My dream is that we turn that around. That we recognize that sharing is infinite and that nature is not infinite. And therefore change the way our civilization, our society runs. Based on that recognition.
I think once you start working peer-to-peer in your field, that you're following your life's dreams that you're passionate about, then you don't want to go back.
I think more and more people should have a chance than just a minority of people.
I think it is the issue of expertise. The fear of dumbing down. The fear that if you broaden participation the people who know more will be lost in the masses. And I think the more hierarchical a society is, the more power experts have, and the more fear they have of losing it.
I think in some countries for example like in France they get more easily angry than in others. So, there's this fear that if you open up that the people who know less will take power. And the quality of society will go down. And it's a fear that I recognize.
I think peer-to-peer runs a danger in some circumstances of having that effect. I don't think it's inherent to peer-to-peer. I think it's bad design, bad governance. That leads to those kind of processes. And now we have value-conscious design, a value-sensitive design that designs for diversity, for autonomy, for selection of excellence. And are the best processes to do that better than even other forms of social organization.
I think this fear is the same fear of democracy. When people started arguing that everybody had the right to vote. There was a very similar fear that democracy would bring the rule of the mob. Now we have had two-hundred years of democracy and democracy is far from perfect. But who wants to go back to an authoritarian state? Not many people want to go back.
It is the same thing with peer-to-peer. Once it's there... once you're used to it, when you have problems, you try to solve it in a peer-to-peer way. We don't want to go back to the old systems.
And when you look at money, money is created by banks through their loans and it's regulated by the central banks. One of the things that we also discovered in peer-to-peer is the importance of invisible architectures. The kind of protocol, the design rules that favours some kind of behavior and make other kinds of behavior difficult.
So I think that what this shows us is that these protocols of money today, interest-based money, is a protocol which drives infinite growth. Infinite growth in a finite system. So I think that this is not a good thing this kinda monetary system which is based on fighting for scarce resources. And so the scarcity for the people who need it. And then you have ninety-eight percent of the money which is floating around speculatively and creating one bubble after another. I don't think this is a very good system.
Now how would a system like this change? Well of course the people who would profit from it are not gonna change it. So what if we create an open money system that we can manage ourselves. That we can choose a protocol from. And that virtual and physical communities can start using from the bottom up. I would say that's one of the particular changes that could happen through peer-to-peer.
The other one is the following: to have peer-to-peer, you have access to your own resources. So today we have:
And that allows us to do immaterial cooperation. So we can do everything that's not physical stuff. We can do it already through peer-to-peer.
Now, when machines start becoming miniaturized, we will have desktop manufacturing, personal fabricators, flexible manufacturing, multi-purpose machinery. All these trends point to capital becoming cheaper and more distributed.
Then we have:
What it does is it augments the peer-to-peer in society. So that peer-to-peer production can move from pure knowledge production to open design for machinery, to actually making things in a more peer-to-peer way. And finding the capital to do it as well.
All these are not changes that are happening over night. But I think the direction of change is in that direction. So in the next ten, twenty, thirty years, we'll see more of these different steps taken up by different people and creating the basis for another type of society which I call the peer-to-peer society.
Open money for me is a particular type of alternative currency which has the capacity to follow different rules.
The important thing is not to have an alternative currency which does the same thing as the old. The important thing is to have new rules for that currency. As long as they are local currencies, they can't scale. So what I am thinking of are open money systems which are virtual (through the internet) and can therefore scale globally and be an interchange between different communities.
I think that the most important thing for peer-to-peer to grow is through example. And that is really what the Peer-to-Peer Foundation wants to do. We want to be an inter-networking platform, where people in the open and free, participatory, and community oriented movements (in whatever field they are) can publicize their efforts, can see who else is doing something similar and can share experiences.
And when people see that peer-to-peer ways of doing things are more efficient... are more pleasant... are more democratic, they will find more and more in common with it. So I think that we are at the very beginning of that revolution where people are beginning to see that.
The engineers who created the internet did it for scientific research and for peer review and exchanging information amongst peers. And gradually as the internet became more and more popular then there were more and more centralized elements within it. Now this is true, and the Web, for example, is a client-server system. But I think the important thing is not to get blinded by technology.
It's really about the people. Can you as individuals produce information, share it, distribute it? And can I as a user find it, take it, and use it? As long as those things are guaranteed we have peer-to-peer human relationships.
And of course we have to be careful about the technology. We have to look at it, we have to see who is in charge... who owns it, what the rules are, and we have to be careful about it. But we shouldn't be blinded by the technology.
It's really about enabling and empowering human participation. That's the key. And sometimes what peer-to-peer does is in a pure way it might make systems less efficient. Take Napster, Napster was more efficient because it had a centralized database. But that made it vulnerable. So politically the file-sharing community was obliged to go more purely peer-to-peer not because it was technically superior but because they wanted a system that couldn't be broken. That is a political decision.
You have to make a balance between going in a more pure peer-to-peer way and maybe having more redundancy, or going toward more efficiency with more centralized elements. But then they are more vulnerable to ownership and control. So this is a technical decision not a philosophical decision. You have to see what is happening concretely in order to make those decisions.
In general we have to have a preference for distributed systems because that is what allows people to be in charge of their own productive resources.
Originally shot and recorded by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia and first published on October 8th 2008 as "Peer To Peer: Social, Political, and Economic Issues In A P2P World - A Video Interview with Michel Bauwens".
About Michel Bauwens
Michel Bauwens (1958) is a Belgian integral philosopher and Peer-to-Peer theorist. He has worked as an internet consultant, information analyst for the United States Information Agency, information manager for British Petroleum (where he created one of the first virtual information centers), and is former editor-in-chief of the first European digital convergence magazine, the Dutch language Wave. With Frank Theys, he is the co-creator of a 3 hour documentary TechnoCalyps, an examination of the 'metaphysics of technology'. He taught and edited two French language anthologies on the Anthropology of Digital Society.
Although a student of Ken Wilber's integral theory for many years, he has recently become critical of aspects of the Wilber-Beck movement, and is a powerful voice for a non-authoritarian peer-to-peer based integral society.
He has taught courses on the anthropology of digital society to postgraduate students at ICHEC/St. Louis in Brussels, Belgium and related courses at Payap University and Chiang Mai University in Thailand.