Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, September 29, 2006

Network Collaboration: Peer To Peer As A New Way Of Living - Video Interview with Michel Bauwens

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Network Collaboration is redefining the way we communicate, publish, do business and build collective knowledge, and it has been made possible with the advent of free or affordable peer to peer technologies.


Peer to peer, as a term, has often been associated with online file sharing networks, where users trade files with one another from all over the globe. But in recent times peer to peer collaboration and the setting up of networks - both on the internet and in office intranets - has expanded to encompass a vast range of ways for people to collaborate effectively, regardless of their location.

Michel Bauwens is the founder of the Foundation For Peer To Peer Alternatives, and a strong advocate of how peer to peer is not simply a technology, but a new way of living. As the worlds of media and business shift away from a top down, hierarchical mode of operation and open up to the creativity and productivity of the public, and each individual within an organization, so society is going through necessary and timely changes.

Michel Bauwens is the founder of the the wiki around which the Foundation is promotes and evangelizes its activities. The wiki contains over 2000 pages of information and resources on all aspects of peer to peer culture.

Michel Bauwens describes the P2P Foundation project (in an interview with iCommons), and the thinking behind it as:

"The basic idea I had was that there's a new social movement emerging which is really about extending the realm of participation to the whole of life. We live in a representative democracy, which says you can vote every four years, and choose which people will exercise power on your behalf... now we're building tools and resources which say everybody needs to be involved, and everybody should have a voice."

In this exclusive video interview for Robin Good's MasterNewMedia Michel discusses his thoughts on what peer to peer really is, and how it is changing the way we live today, in an increasingly networked, collaborative social landscape.

(If you are not on a high-speed Internet video connection there is a full transcript of the full video interview.)

Photo credit: Zaktlo Kostic

What is Peer To Peer?

In our first video clip Michel expands upon the definition of Peer to Peer, and discusses the three aspects of Peer to Peer networks:

  • Peer Production - How are peer productions different from other modes of production?
  • Peer Governance - how are peer groups organized?
  • Peer Property - how or in what ways are these productions protected from individual or corporate appropriation?

Peer to Peer In Context

In our second clip Michel discusses:

  • Peer to Peer history - the historical foundations of Peer to Peer culture.
  • Technological determinism - the extent to which contemporary Peer to Peer culture relies on the enabling technologies that make it possible
  • Degrees of involvement in Peer to Peer culture - the extent to which Peer to Peer production and activity are governed by self interest

Peer To Peer Spirituality

In the next brief section of the interview, Michel responds to the notion that Peer to Peer might have a spiritual dimension, highlighting the importance of how one relates to others as paramount.

Peer to Peer, Hierarchies And You

Michel next discusses the notion of hierarchies, and how they are transformed by the Peer to Peer approach. He argues that:

  • Peer to Peer production does not dispense with hierarchies

  • Hierarchies are transformed to hierarchies of engagement and knowledge

  • These hierarchies evolve according to meritocratic principles

He goes on to discuss how Peer to Peer modes effect everyday people:

  • Passionate production - Free production is based on passion and interest on an individual level

  • On a group level this makes for pooled passion and knowledge to produce the best possible product

  • Working relationships in corporate culture have become dysfunctional.

Profiting From Peer Production

In this next clip Michel discusses the relationship between peer production and the marketplace, arguing that:

  • The two are becoming increasingly codependent, so that social innovation feeds the market place, and the market place funds social innovation
  • Participatory platforms emerging - how sharing based services like or Flickr enable sharing while profiting
  • Capitalizing on the Commons - how the purer form of sharing based on the Commons can be capitalized through derivative services, such as consultancy
  • Knowledge Capital - how taking part in Peer to Peer productions can increase your knowledge capital, which can be sold in the marketplace.

Final Thoughts

In this final part of the interview Michel responds to questions about:

  • The Developing World - how can Peer to Peer culture effect those outside of the developed nations?
  • Contact Details - how can you get involved with the Peer to Peer Foundation and make contact with Michel Bauwens
  • Aims of the project - what are the aims and goals of the foundation?

Video Interview with Michel Bauwens of P2P Foundation

- Full text transcript

Photo credit: (cc)

James Burke: So why don't you tell me about what you do, and why you're here in the Netherlands?

Michel Bauwens: I'm Michel Bauwens, I live in Chiang Mai in Thailand, which is the second city in Thailand, in the mountains. And I'm a member and the founder of a foundation, called the Foundation For Peer To Peer Alternatives, and basically what we're doing is documenting, researching and promoting peer to peer alternatives. And so basically what I've been doing in Amsterdam is talking to people, giving seminars, lectures about how P2P is not just a technology but really a new way of doing things, a new way of being in the world and, you know, just, kind of, the taste of the next society in a way.

JB: So what's peer to peer itself?

Michel Bauwens: So peer to peer, the word peer means more or less equal. so peer to peer is - its a little bit difficult, the definition - the relational dynamic in distributed networks. So wherever you have a network of people, where you have no coercion, in other words no obligations, no limitations to how you can connect to other people, once you have that, then you have a kind of bottom up relationship that starts between those people in a network. And those relationships are peer to peer networks.

So you get three different things with that, you get peer production - it's when those people start deciding to do something in common, to produce something - think of Linux, think of Wikipedia, think of, you know, the how many billions of pages on Google which are produced by people together.

The second thing is, how do they actually manage that, given that they are doing all of those things, how do they manage those relationships - I call that peer governance, so governing the peer to peer projects.

And the third thing is peer property, which is, okay, how do you protect it from individual appropriation, or corporate appropriation, so if you decide to do something together how do make sure it stays for everyone rather than, kind of, benefit only to a few?

JB: So is peer to peer something that has always existed? Is it something that's very old, or is it a recent thing?

Michel Bauwens: Well it's both old and new. It's old in the sense that, probably for most of human history, apart from the last three or four thousand years, people were living in small communities and there was no state separate from the people that could oppress them in a way, so probably you could say that wherever people were together in small numbers, they were somehow doing peer to peer.

The thing is, as soon as you reach a certain limit, say 150 people - this actually been studied, its called the Dunbar Number, and its kind of a limit to how many relationships people can manage on their own, in a small group - as soon as you go beyond that, so a society becomes more complex, you have hierarchy, which is a kind of simplifying of those relationships, and then suddenly you can only relate in certain ways as dictated by the top of the hierarchy.

JB: So is peer to peer different now than it was in the past, like, 'cause we still have groups...

Michel Bauwens: Well the difference is that we finally invented a technology that allows people to work in small groups, even in big projects, and even when they're not together. That's a big difference.

JB: Okay.

Michel Bauwens: So I'm not saying technology's the cause of it, but technology's certainly an enabling factor and its probably, you know, society, a hierarchy, kind of, what it says is that the whole should not be more complex than the one person deciding at the top.

Now, that's breaking down everywhere. the complexity of technology, of society, is such that you can't do that anymore.

So we looked for and invented technology which allows us to go beyond hierarchy. and so peer to peer is different in a sense that today it's technology dependent. You look at Wikipedia and Linux, okay yes, hundreds of thousands of people are working on it, but if you then look at how they're working on it, well it's basically small teams.

JB: It sounds like communism, or like Marx, but is it -

Michel Bauwens: no

JB: ...of course we know through communism that it ended up in these huge hierarchies, even though it was going on about the workers. How's it relate to that?

Michel Bauwens: Well, it has actually nothing to do with communism as understood, being the soviet union or those centralized systems, are the complete opposite of peer to peer. Now, it has something do with the ideal that eventually, you know what Marx said, how is it again... Each gives according to his ability, and each gets on the basis of need. So yes, in that case, when you do a Linux or Wikipedia, you volunteer for the project and you make it common, and then anybody can use it. So in that sense there is a relationship.


Michel Bauwens: Now it's not idealistic. I don't know if you want to hear that story, but, that's something that's often said, that "Well that's too idealistic", right?

JB: Right.

Michel Bauwens: But I would say no, because its really based on different ways of people acting for their own benefit. So, it's like in different stages.

The basic stage is, you're just doing it for yourself, but the mere fact that different people are doing the same thing for themselves is actually beneficial for the group. You know, like Dell, you order your computer, you configure it on the net, well for Dell they're learning all that stuff from all these people doing it, even though everybody's doing it on its own.

The second step is that you're doing it for your own but you know that you're also sharing at the same time, and those are the new Web 2.0 projects, like - sharing bookmarks, Flickr - sharing photos, Youtube - you're sharing videos. You're still doing it for yourself, but you know you're doing it in a group, and that you benefit from the other people doing it. So that's kind of like a step up.

And the most advanced step, if you like, is when you know you're producing something in common, as a group. That's Linux and Wikipedia. So there's a hierarchy of cooperation, of sharing and in each case you're doing it also for yourself. If you join a project like Wikipedia, you give a little bit, but you get everything that everybody's doing, you know. So it's really beneficial.

There's also a way in which giving is receiving, like if you're in a family. You know, with your children, you're not asking yourself "what am I getting back", because actually the mere fact of giving is what gives you the pleasure, so many people are actually collaborating because its fun, because they like to share, they like to do stuff together.

JB: That sounds very in line with also what a lot of the message of spirituality in giving to others. Does peer to peer have another dimension in how it touches for instance, the spiritual traditions?

Michel Bauwens: I think there is a spiritual element which is about how you relate to others. In the market, you relate to others as subject to object. It's an impersonal relationship - you buy something from somebody, of course you say hello and stuff, but its a neutral thing.

The ideal of peer to peer is that you have this notion of peers, so you're actually dealing with another subject, another person and I think that's an element, kind of like a spiritual element of it, and when you then apply it in a general way its about treating nature as a partner, treating the producers of what you consume, treating them as a partner, like in Fair Trade. So certainly thats a spiritual and political element that is kind of implicit in peer to peer.

JB: Does peer to peer have any brother or sister ideologies or partners?

Michel Bauwens: Well, historically, what we call the commons has been existing for a long time. Any traditional society, traditional village, has some common area where everybody can use the wood, get the herbs or whatever, and its really only in the capitalist system, in the sixteenth century, what was called the enclosures, where these common areas are abandoned and privatized.

But then you see the workers, they create mutualities. So they share the risk of living together, and everybody puts in, but if you seek on base of need, you can take out, so the welfare state system is based on generalizing those common activities of the workers. So yeah, I think people have always wanted to do that in some way or another, but what we have now - the big advantage - is that we have abundance, in material resources. We have the internet, we have the web.

By creating this abundance, it's easier to share.

JB: Hierarchies. Can you talk a little bit about how peer to peer effects hierarchies?

Michel Bauwens: Yes. So, I think it's incorrect to say that there's no hierarchy in peer to peer. There is some form of hierarchy, but traditionally how a hierarchy is defined is that you have a small group of people that kind of go out of the system and then decide what the other people should do, right?

So there's an element of coercion involved in hierarchy, which I don't think you necessarily have in peer to peer.

I think peer to peer is more people saying "shall we do this together", and then of course the people who launch it have some kind of extra leverage, because they inspire the others, like Jimmy Wales in Wikipedia, Richard Stallman with Free Software, Linus Torvald with Linux.

So there's a hierarchy of engagement and there's a hierarchy of experience, and usually what you find is that there'll be some kind of core leadership setting the broad strategy or constitution of the project. But then within the team it's really a meritocracy - it's "Okay, for this kind of project, you're the best programmer, you're the best creative guy" - and then hierarchy becomes something very fluid, in the work itself, according to what type of work you're doing...

JB: How does peer to peer effect the average person? How can you see it effecting...

Michel Bauwens: Ok, so what I'm saying is, at least on a general scale, as our society evolves from less and less material to more and more immaterial production, and as in the immaterial sphere we get more and more for benefit production and less and less for profit production, so this sphere of peer production, peer to peer, is expanding.

It's the technological infrastructure - internet, web - it's the organizational structure - the way we organize together - so its a third mode of production, a third mode of governance, and a third mode of property. And it's more efficient than the old way of doing things.

Individually, then, that's the next step, individually when you're freely producing something and you're not dependent on somebody else, then it changes your whole outlook on life, and on how you work.

You work based out of interest and passion, so that whatever you are doing will always be almost optimal. And then together what we want to make is the best possible product, so there's always this continuous improvement of what we're doing together.

Yeah, and I just think it's more fun to work together - working with friends, working with people who share the same ideals - I think it's a lot better than working for a corporation.

JB: You've got a lot of experience in that, haven't you?

Michel Bauwens: Yeah, I've been in the corporate world, and one of the reason's I quit is that I think that working relationships today have become dysfunctional. It's just not working. You see more and more innovations taking place outside of corporations. The pharmaceutical industry is really stuck, it can't really innovate in terms of medicines anymore.

I mean you see Windows and Vista, Microsoft and Vista having all this trouble launching a new operating system. So you see that the traditional way of doing things is getting more difficult, and then you see these alternatives emerging which are doing it better and more easier, and more productively and making better products. So it's clearly an alternative.

JB: Do you think most people can start producing in the commons and making a living out of it, or is it something that's going to take decades to roll out?

Michel Bauwens: Yeah, it's probably going to take decades. But it's emerging, and it's growing but it's going to take some time. The big problem of course is that you're volunteering to do something in common which is free to use.

So you have a problem of the sustainability of peer production. So what's happening right now is that peer production and the market are co-dependent on each other. I mean, the market is more and more dependent on social innovation, which happens through these means. And as a peer producer you have to go regularly back to the market to make money.

JB: But at the same time, you also pointed out in some of your talks that you can also be, if you add money to a peer produced products like, for instance, the dilemma inside Firefox, it can torpedo the whole initiative. Is that something that you know any more about, or that people are tracking?

Michel Bauwens: Okay, so what you can do is, well you know, I make a difference between those projects which are based on weak sharing, on weak links, like and Flickr - you're doing your own thing, and you're also sharing, but the main thing is you're doing it for yourself, so you don't really know the other people- and in this case what you see is the company's that are emerging are those that are making the platforms, so that's a huge new industry, making participatory platforms, and these are making money based on your, from your sharing, but they're also enabling your sharing, so it's a kind of mutual benefit, right?

If you're really producing together, like Wikipedia and Linux and other projects you are producing a commons, and what you can do is, you can't sell the commons, because it's protected by these Creative Commons and General Public Licence kind of legislation. But what you can do is create derivative strategies, like saying, this is really good software, I'll install it in your company. And you don't pay me for the software, but you pay us for installing it, training you, helping you with difficulties.

As an individual, you give freely to the commons, but you learn from it, so you increase your knowledge capital. You get to know people - and you increase your relationship capital, your network capital. If to a a degree you are trustworthy and you give more, your reputation goes up.

All these are benefits you can then go to the market. So it's not direct, it's indirect, but you do get benefits. So what you can see is that as an individual you can say well, it's not sustainable because I cannot always work for free on the peer projects, but if you have a peer project, you still get, every month 15% of people are stopping, but another 15% are adding, so it's sustainable as a project, even though it might not be sustainable as an individual in the long run. But then you see what people are doing is, they go to the market, get some money, and then when the project is finished they don't want to have a new job immediately after, 'cause they really want to do this project that they're passionate about.

JB: Well I think that passion can go onto the market, or onto the commons, I think that we're going to see many gradations between that. It's good to separate the two, just so we know clearly what we're talking about.

Michel Bauwens: Yeah, it makes me think of the middle ages where you know were in the feudal system, but you could get out, you would go become a monk, and the region where I live in South East Asia, you could become a monk for a few years. It's the same kind of process...

JB: ... That stepping out basically...

Michel Bauwens: Yeah, you step out, you step back in. So you can step out of the market, do some peer production, and okay you need some more money, go back to the market.

JB: Okay. Well, I'd like to ask you, how does it apply to - like I'm just taking some extreme examples, but yeah - for instance people who are living in developing countries, or for instance, you're poor, you've got no money, you're living in a shanty town. How is peer to peer affecting really disadvantaged people in every term?

Michel Bauwens: One of the advantages is that you can have access to infrastructure, which is dramatically cheaper because it's produced by those communities and its freely available that means for those people that want to access the networked world, it's going to be a lot cheaper.

If they themselves engage in it, because, you know, they do have programmers in those countries, so if you engage in free software production as compared to just buying it from a major multinational, you're learning a lot.

You're learning so much more, so you're creating this intellectual capital in your own country that you're not creating if you're just buying an off the shelf product, where basically the profit is going to another country.

So those are advantages. And of course, you know, you have to be creative, maybe collectively buying a computer or using micro fans schemes to actually get access to it.

JB: Well thank you very much for this talk on peer to peer. I'd like to ask you, could you tell our viewers, how can we reach you?

Michel Bauwens: Okay, well I have an email: michelsub200[at] We have a website, it's a kind of encyclopedia called the wiki. We have a blog, which is I think that's enough, through those sources you can...

JB: What are your plans, where is it going - with your organization and what's happening in the near future?

Michel Bauwens: Basically, P2P Foundation.

At some point in your life you say "This is what I want to do, this is what I believe in" and just kind of like plant your flag, virtually, in the ground. And then you attract people, so what was an individual project becomes a collective project, we have about 30-40 people working together now, and my desire now is to go from the virtual to the physical, you know, get those people to meet up, think about it, learn from each other and I'm very ambitious in a way, in my social ambition.

This is something that will change the world.

So I want all those movements and people who are doing it to realize that they're not alone and that they're participating in an important change. It's actually a kind of political and social project.

Let's have a world where people can be peers.

I think that's exciting.

This exclusive video interview was kindly shot and recorded for Robin Good's Media Network by James Burke in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on September 18th 2006. James Burke is the author of "Lifesized - Measuring hearts and minds" web blog. Thanks James.

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posted by Robin Good on Friday, September 29 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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