Sunday, September 03, 2006

P2P: A blueprint for the future?

One of the abiding debates about the Internet is the extent to which it represents a step change in the way that societies — and economies — will function in the future. What is undeniable is that the Web has sparked a growing number of "free" and "open" movements that challenge current economic models — including the Free and Open Source Software movements, the Open Access Movement, Open Source Journalism, and Creative Commons. Many also believe that the peer-to-peer (P2P) phenomenon has significant implications for the traditional top-down model on which modern societies are based.

But what is it that all these movements have in common? And how revolutionary will they prove over time? Thailand-based Michel Bauwens, creator of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, believes that they have a great deal in common. He also believes that they offer a potential new model for the future development of human society. However, he argues, since the free and open movements are all components of a more generalised revolution, advocates of these movements should combine forces with the larger P2P movement if they want to ensure the success of their individual objectives. Here, in the first of a two-part interview, Bauwens talks to Richard Poynder.

RP: As I understand it, you started your career as an information analyst for the United States Information Agency, and then became an information manager for BP Nutrition in Antwerp. At BP you created the first virtual library — for which you won a number of awards — and coined the term cybrarian.

MB: Certainly some credit me with the invention of the cybrarian concept, although I'm not sure that that is strictly correct —often new terms are independently coined by different people as and when new technology creates the need for them. But yes, I created a virtual library at BP and I used the term cybrarianship to describe the way that library functions would be re-engineered for the electronic realm.

RP: Subsequently you have had a number of different careers, and in 2005 created The Foundation for P2P Alternatives. Talk me through the journey you took from European-based librarian (or information professional if you like) to creator of The P2P Foundation.

MB: Ok. After setting up the virtual library at BP, I became editor-in-chief of the Flemish cyberculture magazine Wave. Unfortunately, the magazine was ahead of its time and closed in 1994. I then went on to create two dotcoms: eCom, which was the first Belgian company to specialise in intranets and extranets and was eventually sold to Alcatel; and Kyberco, a cyber-marketing company. Kyberco was sold to a Belgian holding company called Virtuology, which was later renamed Tagora.

Kind of burnout

RP: You don’t like standing still then?

MB: Right. I guess I'm more of a serial entrepreneur: as soon as a company reaches a 25-40 staff barrier, I tend to loose interest because of the increased management workload, and so move on to new projects.

Anyway in 1998, after selling the two companies I had founded, I had a kind of burnout. This was partly due to the fact that I had been combining my day job with the co-production of a three-hour TV documentary.

RP: What was the documentary about?

MB: It was called TechnoCalyps, the Metaphysics of Technology and the End of Man. It was an extensive meditation on the transhuman / posthuman impact of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology.

RP: Can one still see it?

MB: It was originally shown on Belgian and Dutch television during the 1997-98 periods, and a new version directed by Frank Theys is slated for viewing this month. However, while I co-wrote the scenario, did the research, and conducted the 40 interviews for the original version, I wasn’t involved in the new version.

RP: Thinking about a posthuman world would be enough to trigger a burnout in anyone I guess!

MB: Absolutely. If you want some background information on the topic, by the way, you should take a look at the special issue of Cybersociology that I edited. I also had an article about the topic published in First Monday in 1996.

RP: So how did you end up Thailand?

MB: After the burnout I took a job directing the ebusiness strategy of Belgium's largest telecommunications company Belgacom; but the experience just made me increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate world, and so open to alternatives. Then around that time I took an unplanned trip to Thailand and met my wife, who is Thai, and I stayed on. I guess you could consider me a refugee from western civilisation!

RP: What was it about the corporate world that dissatisfied you?

MB: Well, the job I had with Belgacom really shocked me. After the dynamism of creating two companies with a bunch of hugely enthusiastic and collaborative youngsters, the inefficiency of such a traditional company was hard to bear.

Moving in the wrong direction

RP: There was back then a view that the Web — and the rash of dotcom companies — would force traditional companies to reinvent themselves or perish wasn’t there?

MB: Sure, but it became clear to me that attempts to graft the Internet and the Web onto the corporate world had largely failed — as evidenced by the dotcom crash.

It was also clear that the belief that change would come from corporations — as envisaged by the stakeholder concept of the late seventies — had also proved wrong. Finally, it occurred to me that all the social and ecological indicators were moving in the wrong direction.

RP: How do you mean?

MB: I could see that despite the dotcom crash, the social dynamism of the Internet had not died, but had simply continued in the social sphere, in civil society. At the same time, corporations had become worse places to work in than they had ever been, and poverty and environmental destruction was growing at an unprecedented scale.

RP: So you had previously seen companies as being facilitators for social and political change then?

MB: I had. But I eventually realised that change would primarily have to come from civil society, and that corporations would adapt themselves to these new trends only indirectly — i.e. companies and other institutions would only change in response to outside pressure, rather than on their own initiative. That meant that if I wanted to contribute to the kind of change I wanted to see, I had to ask myself questions about strategy and tactics.

RP: And the answer to those questions was what?

MB: Well, the answers weren’t obvious, because I didn’t feel that I could find them in the old left, which was still state-focused and operating within the paradigms of industrial society. So I decided to take a two-year sabbatical: I spent one year reading, and one year writing, and the end result was the P2P Foundation.

RP: What is the aim of The P2P Foundation?

MB: To research, document and promote peer-to-peer principles.

Relational dynamic

RP: Presumably, then, you see P2P as a lever for the kind of changes you believe are necessary. I'm conscious that most people think of P2P as being synonymous with "illegal" file-sharing services like Grokster, Kazaa and Gnutella, although it's true that less controversial distributed technologies like SETI@home are also described as P2P, as indeed are some new business services. But you see P2P as a much broader phenomenon don’t you? Your web site, for instance, describes P2P as "a new form of political organising and subjectivity, and an alternative for the current political/economic order." That's quite a leap isn’t it?

MB: Well, we define P2P as the "relational dynamic at work in distributed networks." That is, any situation in which autonomous agents can freely connect without coercion. And to the extent that distributed networks are increasingly being used as technological and organisational communication platforms, the P2P dynamic keeps growing.

RP: What you are talking about is decentralised co-operation over the Internet?

MB: Not quite. With decentralised services you still have obligatory hubs. So you can have centralised hierarchical structures, and you can have structures that are decentralised and heterarchical (i.e. having many power centres rather than one). What is radically different about distributed P2P arrangements, however, is that they have diffused power structures.

And what is attractive about the peer-to-peer mode of organisation is that it combines both freedom, and what I call equipotentiality — which is a finer-grained vision of equality since it honours the differences between people.

RP: Equipotentiality?

MB: In the context of P2P, equipotentiality is the assumption that the individual can self-select his contributions, which are then communally validated.

RP: Self selection here implies that individuals choose what, when, and how they contribute?

MB: Exactly. Nobody but the individual concerned knows better the precise nature of the skills he can contribute; and his peers then validate his contribution. As such, it turns the old model on its head. There is no a priori selection, only ‘after the fact’. It is the model you see in citizen journalism and in projects like Wikipedia for example: Not select, then publish; but publish, then select

Jorge Ferrer has expressed this well. In an equipotential relationship, he says, the various participants are "equals in the sense of their being both superior and inferior to themselves in varying skills and areas of endeavour (intellectually, emotionally, artistically, mechanically, interpersonally, and so forth), but with none of those skills being absolutely higher or better than others. It is important to experience human equality from this perspective to avoid trivialising our encounter with others as being merely equal."

RP: The connection here with the open and free movements is that when, say, Open Source developers co-operate over the Web to produce software they adopt this P2P model. By, for instance, self-selecting what they contribute?

MB: Exactly. Whenever people can connect freely and engage in common projects without coercion you have a peer-to-peer dynamic. So it applies to computers, as in file sharing, and, crucially, it also applies to people. However, while small groups of people can physically connect in a peer-to-peer arrangement, the use of technology is vital for larger groups.

The point about the Internet/Web, then, is that it enables the creation of global microstructures that consist of many small cyber collectives. These are autonomous, but they can co-ordinate on a global scale. That is the power and the transformative potential of P2P.

Three new social processes

RP: So what are the implications of this P2P dynamic in terms of enabling the social and political changes that you want to see?

MB: The P2P phenomenon gives rise to three new social processes: peer production (which is best explained by Yochai Benkler in his book The Wealth of Networks); peer governance (i.e. how these groups manage themselves) and peer property (i.e. commonly-owned property).

RP: What is it that is new and distinctive about these three new social processes?

MB: Well, the interesting thing about peer production is that while it is embedded in the market, it is managed by neither pricing nor corporate hierarchies. As Benkler points out, it has therefore introduced a third mode of production, one organised by neither markets nor the state.

Similarly, non-hierarchical governance represents a third mode of governance, one based on civil society rather than on representational democracy; in other words, non-representational democracy.

Finally, P2P gives rise to non-exclusionary property forms. These are based on both free and open access, and they seek to prevent the private appropriation of commonly produced work arising from peer production.

RP: Which has given rise to the notion of copyleft for instance?

MB: Indeed. It has given rise to things like the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) and some of the Creative Commons licences. While there are many variants, what these licenses all have in common is that, although they honour individual contributions, they insist that participants agree to a ‘share-alike’ principle that commits them to only using commonly-produced work if they are prepared to abide by the principle of common ownership themselves.

This ensures that peer property spreads in a viral fashion, in a process that we call the ‘circulation of the common.’ This is a new phenomenon, and it operates in parallel with the ‘circulation of commodities’ process of the traditional market system.

RP: So the peer-to-peer dynamic introduces new ways of doing things, and new share-alike property relationships. And it is these things that have given rise to the rash of free and open movements?

MB: Yes. When we use the term P2P we are referring to a number of new developments and phenomena. And one of the new phenomena that P2P creates is a new public domain — an information commons — which people are expected to protect and extend, especially in the domain of common knowledge creation.

New egalitarian digital culture

RP: Let's go back to your assertion that P2P creates a new form of political organising and subjectivity. Can you expand on that for me?

MB: Sure. What we believe is that the networked format, expressed in the specific manner of these new peer-to-peer relations, encourages an alternative to the current political and economic order.

I should add that we are not saying that it offers solutions per se, but that it points the way to a variety of dialogical and self-organising formats for devising different processes to  arrive at such solutions.

It reconnects, for instance, with older traditions, and attempts to create a more co-operative social order. This time, however, it obviates the need for authoritarianism and centralisation — so it has the potential of creating a new egalitarian digital culture.

We also believe that P2P technology reflects a change of consciousness towards participation, and in turn strengthens that desire for participation. Indeed, participatory and self-creating habits seem already to have reached a tipping point. That at least appears to be the implication of recent reports from the Pew Institute and Edelman.

RP: You are referring to the various surveys suggesting that people now attach as much authority to web-based information sources — such as blogs — as they do to so-called "experts", and one-directional, top-down news sources?

MB: Indeed. So what we now need to do is to develop adequate institutional formats to encompass these changes.

RP: What sorts of alternative political and economic order do you envisage?

MB: I think we are looking at an era of 'non-representational democracy', where an increasing number of people will be able to manage their social and productive life through the use of a variety of networks and peer circles.

One consequence of this is that P2P extends non-representational democracy from politics to production and culture. And that is really a new step in the history of civilisation.

John Heron expressed this evolution very well in a letter he sent to me recently. As he put it, "There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight:
  • autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;
  • narrow democratic cultures which practise political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;
  • wider democratic cultures which practise both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;
  • commons P2P cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavour."
Unrealistically utopian?

RP: As you say, P2P doesn’t offer any solutions per se. In fact, what you are describing sounds like a kind of democratic overlay over the existing economic and political system. Indeed, you could argue that this democratic overlay is not rooted in any real-world economic or political system? Critics might accuse you of being unrealistically utopian might they not?

MB: I disagree. As a description of existing social trends, there is nothing utopian about it. P2P theory does not seek an ideal world, but rather seeks to strengthen positive trends that are already occurring. As a vision of how things should be, therefore, it is a concrete utopia, which strives to change daily life in the context of an ethical position.

RP: Ok, so you are simply describing what you see happening out there. You also think that it is a good thing right?

MB: Yes. The normative position is: are we ready to treat each other as subjects and as peers, rather than as masters and slaves? That part is utopian, and no doubt cannot be fully realised in our imperfect world, but it is an inspiring vision, and such concrete utopians as Jesus, King, Mandela and Gandhi, have changed lives and societies in the past though their concrete utopian visions.

The difference today, of course, is that we are no longer waiting for great leaders, since it is the collective intelligence of humankind that needs to rise to the level of its global challenges.

So, yes, I think it is a good thing. As I say, the task today is to develop new tools and techniques to arrive at solutions through a common democratic process.

What I expect to see, by the way, is that peer governance within peer communities will co-exist with our current political democracies, and these in turn will be influenced by the P2P ethos, and so begin to adopt more and more multi-stakeholder forms of governance themselves. I would also point out that it is no longer realistic for any political group to claim that it has easy solutions to complex problems.

Common initiative

RP: So what are the specific objectives of The P2P Foundation?

MB: There are a number of things we want to do. Today P2P exists in a variety of discrete and separate movements and projects, and these different movements are often unaware of the common P2P ethos that binds them. While these different social movements would doubtless continue to exist regardless of the existence of the P2P Foundation, they can gain strength from interconnecting, and understanding their common ground.

For that reason we believe there is a need for a common initiative to bring information about P2P together, to connect people, and to mutually inform them. In this way they will be able to develop integrative insights culled from their different perspectives and experiences, and organise events for reflection, action and education. They can also develop the critical and creative tools needed to drive P2P forward.

So we see the Foundation as a matrix, or womb, to inspire the development and linking of the different nodes active in the P2P field, and to organise people around common interests and geographic localities, or indeed any other type of identity that they wish to organise around.

RP: How are you going about this?

MB: The first thing I did was simply to put a stake out in the virtual world, and ask: do you believe in these principles and values? If so, then why not join with me? And to support this I started a newsletter, a blog and a Wiki.

RP: What sort of feedback have you had?

MB: Growth so far has been primarily organic. Slowly, the number of emails I receive has grown from five a week, to five a day, to 25 a day. As I said, I started out by taking a year of study-time, and then a year of writing. It is only this year that I have started to devote my efforts to developing our online presence. Next year I hope to make our activities more physical — by organising events and meetings, and so on. And we are in the process of creating a legal structure for our activities as we speak.

RP: Who else is involved with the Foundation, and in what capacity?

MB: Currently we have a core of about ten to twelve people who contribute most days, and another two dozen who contribute once or twice a week. We also have occasional contributors.

In terms of more active participation, our team consists of James Burke, a young Dutch entrepreneur and strategic designer who is developing the blog; Jeff Petry, a Chiang Mai-based anthropologist, who is responsible for spreading the P2P meme; Adrian Chan, who contributes on relationality issues; Samuel Rose, who focuses on co-operation studies; Remi Sussan, who helps us with French-language material; Brice Leblevennec, a Belgian entrepreneur, who provides us with service space and technical support; Valentin Spirik, who monitors audiovisual developments; and Michael Pick, who is focused on open standards.

We also have a number of others working in additional areas; plus we have a network of people who help us by developing country pages. Right now we are active in around a dozen different countries.

RP: I get the feeling that interest in The Foundation is mainly coming from North America. Is that right?

MB: If you look at the Frappr map on our home page you will see that contributors mainly come from North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. A number of active contributors have also recently joined us from Brazil and Peru.

RP: How is the Foundation funded?

MB: Right now we are mostly funded through voluntary contributions from subscribers to P2P News, although we also have a small grant from W-S Networks — which is a network of complexity consultants.

Information Commons

RP: Let's return to the question of the information commons you mentioned. Can you say more about this and why we need an information commons?

MB: The first point to make is that the cost of producing and distributing knowledge and other immaterial assets is near zero in a networked world, and the role of immaterial production is growing continuously in today's economy.

What this means is that the most natural and productive use of these immaterial assets is to create an open and free pool of information. Anyone can then take this material and freely remix and augment it. As I said, it allows for a process that we call the "circulation of the common."

RP: Where does the current debate about the role of intellectual property fit into a discussion about P2P?

MB: It's clear that since technology has brought the cost of reproducing immaterial assets down to near zero, we need to make some fundamental changes to the IP system. While it is acceptable to have a compromise in which authors and content producers are remunerated, this should be a minimal regime, not the totalitarian regime that the content multinationals seek to impose on the world.

There are, in any case, a number of alternative schemes being developed that would be better for creative artists than the current regime. We envisage, for instance, hybrid P2P projects — which will sit between the market and the pure sphere of non-remunerated peer production.

RP: You mean devising ways in which knowledge and content producers can make a living by combining more traditional business models with new P2P models, in the hope of allowing a smoother transition to the new world?

MB: Yes, and The Foundation is currently investigating such hybrid models.

RP: On your web site you say that the general principles behind movements like Open Source software and Open Access provide models that can be used in "other areas of social and productive life". Does this include material production in any way?

MB: Sure. While these principles naturally apply to any form of immaterial production, we believe they also have relevance in the sphere of physical production. After all, although physical production requires large amounts of capital, the manufacturing process also includes an immaterial design phase.

RP: So while physical products like, say, washing machines and television sets, will always need to be sold at a price that reflects the cost of the raw material and the labour that went into producing them, the knowledge about how to produce and design them should be made freely available for anyone to make us of?

MB: That's right. Essentially, P2P expands democracy from the political sphere, to all spheres of life. I would add that P2P's strength is that, as a mode of production, it is more efficient than the for-profit and state-centralised modes in many areas of production.

The other point to make is that in many cases the capital (be it financial or industrial) required to produce material products will also be distributed, and so P2P principles can be applied in the distribution of capital too.

RP: Can you explain that?

MB: I mean that it would be wrong to think that material production will not be affected by the P2P paradigm, so we need methods whereby, instead of having one or several large investors, or shareholders interested in short-term profit, capital can be obtained in distributed ways, from the producing communities and their customers themselves for instance.

That means that we need 'distributed capital'. The UK-based Limited Liability Partnerships and other Open Capital schemes could be a step in that direction for instance. User-built networks and P2P-exchange projects like Prosper and Zopa also point in that direction.

RP: OK, I'd like to probe you a bit more on the practicalities of P2P, and the politics, and then look at the kind of threats it faces. But let's take a break for the moment.

The second part of this interview can be read here.

A PDF file containing both parts of the interview with Michel Bauwens can be downloaded here. Please note that I am asking those who do download the file to make a voluntary contribution of $8 to my PayPal account. Details of how to do this can be found at the end of the PDF file text.


BerryDM said...

Will you be posting a PDF of the Interview?



Richard Poynder said...

I hadn't planned to, but if that is what people want I am happy to do so.

Perhaps it would be best to wait until I publish the second part of the interview, and then put both parts in one PDF file.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it was a lot of work transcribing the interview and including various hyperlinks - I prefer to listen to the interview - might you be publishing a podcast?

Richard Poynder said...

Not this time I'm afraid. Maybe for future interviews.