Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, February 20, 2006

P2P-Based Economy: The Political Power Of Peer-To-Peer Networks

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Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our social life.

Photo credit: Joseph Zlomek

As political, economic, and social systems transform themselves into distributed networks, a new human dynamic is emerging: peer to peer (P2P).

As P2P gives rise to the emergence of a third mode of production, a third mode of governance, and a third mode of property, it is poised to overhaul our political economy in unprecedented ways. This essay aims to develop a conceptual framework ('P2P theory') capable of explaining these new social processes.

Photo credit: Photojynic

Peer to Peer

P2P does not refer to all behavior or processes that take place in distributed networks: P2P specifically designates those processes that aim to increase the most widespread participation by equipotential participants. We will define these terms when we examine the characteristics of P2P processes, but here are the most general and important characteristics.

P2P processes:

  • produce use-value through the free cooperation of producers who have access to distributed capital: this is the P2P production mode, a 'third mode of production' different from for-profit or public production by state-owned enterprises. Its product is not exchange value for a market, but use-value for a community of users.
  • are governed by the community of producers themselves, and not by market allocation or corporate hierarchy: this is the P2P governance mode, or 'third mode of governance.'
  • make use-value freely accessible on a universal basis, through new common property regimes. This is its distribution or 'peer property mode': a 'third mode of ownership,' different from private property or public (state) property.

The Infrastructure of P2P

What has been needed to facilitate the emergence of peer to peer processes?

The first requirement is the existence of a technological infrastructure that operates on peer to peer processes and enables distributed access to 'fixed' capital. Individual computers that enable a universal machine capable of executing any logical task are a form of distributed 'fixed capital,' available at low cost to many producers.

The internet, as a point to point network, was specifically designed for participation by the edges (computer users) without the use of obligatory hubs. Although it is not fully in the hands of its participants, the internet is controlled through distributed governance, and outside the complete hegemony of particular private or state actors. The internet's hierarchical elements (such as the stacked IP protocols, the decentralized Domain Name System, etc...) do not deter participation.

Viral communicators, or meshworks, are a logical extension of the internet. With this methodology, devices create their own networks through the use of excess capacity, bypassing the need for a pre-existing infrastructure. The 'Community Wi-Fi' movement, Open Spectrumadvocacy, file-serving television, and alternative meshwork-based telecommunication infrastructures are exemplary of this trend.

The second requirement is alternative information and communication systems which allow for autonomous communication between cooperating agents.

The web (in particular the Writeable Web and the Web 2.0 that is in the process of being established) allows for the universal autonomous production, dissemination, and 'consumption' of written material while the associated podcasting and webcasting developments create an 'alternative information and communication infrastructure' for audio and audiovisual creation.

Photo credit: Piotr Sikora

The existence of such an infrastructure enables autonomous content production that may be distributed without the intermediary of the classic publishing and broadcasting media (though new forms of mediation may arise).

The third requirement is the existence of a 'software' infrastructure for autonomous global cooperation.

A growing number of collaborative tools, such as blogs and wiki's, embedded in social networking software facilitate the creation of trust and social capital, making it possible to create global groups that can create use-value without the intermediary of manufacturing or distribution by for-profit enterprises.

The fourth requirement is a legal infrastructure that enables the creation of use-value and protects it from private appropriation. The General Public License (which prohibits the appropriation of software code), the related Open Source Initiative, and certain versions of the Creative Commons license fulfill this role. They enable the protection of common use-value and use viral characteristics to spread. GPLand related material can only be used in projects that in turn put their adapted source code in the public domain.

The fifth requirement is cultural. The diffusion of mass intellectuality, (i.e. the distribution of human intelligence) and associated changes in ways of feeling and being (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology) and value constellations (axiology) have been instrumental in creating the type of cooperative individualism needed to sustain an ethos which can enable P2P projects.

The Characteristics of P2P

P2P processes occur in distributed networks. Distributed networks are networks in which autonomous agents can freely determine their behavior and linkages without the intermediary of obligatory hubs.

As Alexander Galloway insists in his book on protocollary power, distributed networks are not the same as decentralized networks, for which hubs are obligatory.

P2P is based on distributed power and distributed access to resources. In a decentralized network such as the U.S.-based airport system, planes have to go through determined hubs; however, in distributed systems such as the internet or highway systems, hubs may exist, but are not obligatory and agents may always route around them.

P2P projects are characterized by equipotentiality or 'anti-credentialism.' This means that there is no a priori selection to participation. The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Thus, projects are open to all comers provided they have the necessary skills to contribute to a project. These skills are verified, and communally validated, in the process of production itself.

This is apparent in open publishing projects such as citizen journalism: anyone can post and anyone can verify the veracity of the articles. Reputation systems are used for communal validation. The filtering is a posteriori, not a priori. Anti-credentialism is therefore to be contrasted to traditional peer review, where credentials are an essential prerequisite to participate.

P2P projects are characterized by holoptism. Holoptism is the implied capacity and design of peer to peer processes that allows participants free access to all the information about the other participants; not in terms of privacy, but in terms of their existence and contributions (i.e. horizontal information) and access to the aims, metrics and documentation of the project as a whole (i.e. the vertical dimension).

This can be contrasted to the panoptism which is characteristic of hierarchical projects: processes are designed to reserve 'total' knowledge for an elite, while participants only have access on a 'need to know' basis. However, with P2P projects, communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system.

The above does not exhaust the characteristics of peer production. In Part II and III of this essay, we will continue our investigation of these characteristics in the context of a comparison with other existing modes of production.

end of Part I (of three)

originally published as: "The Political Economy of Peer Production"
on January 12th 2005
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

About the author:
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.

Michel is the author of a number of on-line essays, including a seminal thesis Peer to Peer and Human Evolution, and is editor of P2P News

He now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he created the Foundation for P2P Alternatives and maintains a blog.

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.

Michel Bauwens -
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posted by Robin Good on Monday, February 20 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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