Today a summit starts in Quito, Ecuador that will discuss ways in which the country can transform itself into an open commons-based knowledge society. The team that put together the proposals is led by Michel Bauwens from the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. What is the background to this plan, and how likely is it that it will bear fruit? With the hope of finding out I spoke recently to Bauwens.
One interesting phenomenon to emerge from the Internet has been the growth of free and open movements, including free and open source software, open politics, open government, open data, citizen journalism, creative commons, open science, open educational resources (OER), open access etc.
While these movements often set themselves fairly limited objectives (e.g. “freeing the refereed literature”) some network theorists maintain that the larger phenomenon they represent has the potential not just to replace traditional closed and proprietary practices with more open and transparent approaches, and not just to subordinate narrow commercial interests to the greater needs of communities and larger society but, since the network enables ordinary citizens to collaborate together on large meaningful projects in a distributed way (and absent traditional hierarchical organisations), it could have a significant impact on the way in which societies and economies organise themselves.
In his influential book The Wealth of Networks, for instance, Yochai Benkler identifies and describes a new form of production that he sees emerging on the Internet — what he calls “commons-based peer production”. This, he says, is creating a new Networked Information Economy.
Former librarian and Belgian network theorist Michel Bauwens goes so far as to say that by enabling peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration, the Internet has created a new model for the future development of human society. In addition to peer production, he explained to me in 2006, the network also encourages the creation of peer property (i.e. commonly owned property), and peer governance (governance based on civil society rather than representative democracy).
Moreover, what is striking about peer production is that it emerges and operates outside traditional power structures and market systems. And when those operating in this domain seek funding they increasingly turn not to the established banking system, but to new P2P practices like crowdfunding and social lending.
When in 2006 I asked Bauwens what the new world he envisages would look like in practice he replied, “I see a P2P civilisation that would have to be post-capitalist, in the sense that human survival cannot co-exist with a system that destroys the biosphere; but it will nevertheless have a thriving marketplace. At the core of such a society — where immaterial production is the primary form — would be the production of value through non-reciprocal peer production, most likely supported through a basic income.”
Unrealistic and utopian?
So convinced was he of the potential of P2P that in 2005 Bauwens created the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives. The goal: to “research, document and promote peer-to-peer principles”
Critics dismiss Bauwens’ ideas as unrealistic and utopian, and indeed in the eight years since I first spoke with him much has happened that might seem to support the sceptics. Rather than being discredited by the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, traditional markets and neoliberalism have tightened their grip on societies, in all parts of the world.