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<nettime> ASIA: Dreaming of a peer to peer world (V Sasi Kumar, on Miche
Frederick Noronha [ààààààà ààààààà] on Sun, 26 Jul 2009 10:53:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> ASIA: Dreaming of a peer to peer world (V Sasi Kumar, on Michel Bauwens)


Dreaming of a peer to peer world

By V Sasi Kumar

Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation, is one of
those who believe in open spaces and creation without incentive. In
this interview he talks about the Free Software and Wikipedia
movements as pointers to a genuine change in the way we think, create
and distribute goods. He believes that we have never before had such
real-time possibilities for human cooperation and collective
intelligence on a global scale

The economic collapse of 2008 is leading many people to question the
suitability of the capitalist economic system. At the same time, many
people are unsure about the system that can replace capitalism. The
most common solution is, of course, socialism. But there are those who
wonder whether there could be alternatives, though no serious
discussion seems to have taken place on this subject. No one today
sincerely expects an armed revolution. On the one hand, there appears
to be a serious revival of interest in Marxism in Europe and even in
the United States, while on the other hand there are people who are
being inspired by the success of movements like Free Software and
Wikipedia which point to aspects of creativity and production that we
have ignored for too long or misinterpreted deliberately or otherwise.

We now know that creativity can and does happen without any incentive,
especially financial incentive. And sometimes even without
recognition. A brief reflection should convince anyone that creativity
happens naturally, not because of financial incentives. In fact, it is
clear that financial incentives cannot be the reason for creativity --
an idea that directly contradicts the concepts behind copyright and

Free Software exists because there are people who enjoy creating
software and who are willing to share it with others. Contributors are
recognised by the community. On the other hand, the thousands of
people who contributed to the more than 2.5 million articles in
English, and smaller numbers in more than 250 other languages in
Wikipedia, do not even get credit for their contributions. They remain
anonymous forever. Yet, millions of articles have been written.
Similarly, millions of people voluntarily contribute their computer
time to computation-intensive projects like SETI {AT} Home.

These are examples of a modern phenomenon that defies explanation
within the existing paradigm -- a true revolution, in the Kuhnian
sense, waiting for a paradigm shift. Many modern thinkers recognise
that it forces us to reconsider our notions about production and
distribution of goods. âWithout a broadly accepted analytic model to
explain these phenomena, we tend to treat them as curiosities, perhaps
transient fadsââ says Yochai Benkler in his The Wealth of Networks.
But these do not appear to be curiosities or fads but symptoms of a
genuine change in the way we think, create and distribute goods.

And this is prompting people to enquire into the possibilities of
emulating that model in the production of ârealâ goods (as opposed to
âvirtual' goods like software and knowledge). They also believe they
can avoid the alienation of worker from work that Karl Marx warned
about, just as in the case of Free Software and Wikipedia.

Michel Bauwens is one of those who believe in open spaces and creation
without incentive. Like Richard Stallman who left his prestigious job
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started the Free
Software Foundation, Michel also left a remunerative corporate job to
start the Peer to Peer Foundation that tries to study the evolving
peer to peer production and distribution systems exemplified by Free
Software and Wikipedia. Michel Bauwens was in Thiruvananthapuram,
Kerala, in December 2008, to participate in the Free Software Free
Society conference and talked about the work of the Foundation. In
this interview, done through email after his return to Thailand,
Michel speaks about how he decided to leave his job and start the P2P
Foundation, what principles the Foundation is based on, what its work
is, and how the work has been progressing.

You were an information scientist and magazine editor before you
started the P2P Foundation. Can you tell us about this evolution? How
did it happen?

My first job (but without any formal library and information science
training, as I studied political science) was nine years as reference
librarian and information analyst for a centre in Brussels. In 1990, I
started working as strategic business information manager at the
headquarters of the agribusiness wing of British Petroleum. At that
time, I reformulated the role of librarian into that of âcybrarianâ,
ie managing âjust in time, just for youâ information streams to senior
management who were not in any real sense using the physical library
resources anymore.

As the animal feed businesses were divested by 1993, I moved on to
creating a Flemish magazine that was a mix of Mondo 2000 and Wired,
and then became one of the Internet evangelists in my home country,
leading to work as a serial Internet entrepreneur.

>From my very first encounter with the Internet, ie collective mailing
lists combining experts from around the world, I knew this was a
technology that would change the very fabric of our world. Never
before had there been such real-time possibilities for human
cooperation and collective intelligence on a global scale. From now
on, the privileged communication infrastructures that were only in the
hands of multinationals and the State, would be distributed and
democratised, a shift at least as important as the effect of the
printing press.

At the same time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the
corporate world, seeing how the neoliberal system not only created
increased social inequality, exacted a terrible psychic cost from even
its privileged managerial layers, while also creating havoc in our
natural world. I started seeing the system as a giant Ponzi scheme (a
scheme in which the profit of those who invest earlier comes from
those who invest later), so what surprised me was not the meltdown of
2008, but why it took so long to actually manifest itself!

At the same time, there was a revival of social resistance starting in
1995, and I was noticing, as a professional trend-watcher, that there
was a common template in the new forms of social organisation, the one
I now call the âpeer to peerâ dynamic, or âvoluntary permissionless
self-aggregation around the production of common valueâ.

Key for me was the observation of the Internet bust in April 2000,
which I witnessed from a privileged position as I was working in the
same sector. As the stock market imploded, pundits were predicting the
end of the Internet because no more capital was available for
innovation and development. In fact the opposite happened -- rather
than diminishing, innovation increased, entirely driven by the social
field of aggregating geeks, giving birth to the Web 2.0, the first
social model based on an interrelationship between new forms of
capitalism and user-generated production of value. I knew then that I
would study this phenomenon more deeply, and in particular since I
consider peer aggregation to be a non-alienating form of work, how it
could be leveraged as a force for social change.

So in October 2002, I decided to quit my corporate engagement, take a
sabbatical to think things through, and moved to Thailand to create a
global cyber-collective to research and promote P2P dynamics.

Is there a basic set of hypotheses from which the Foundation starts?

Yes, I formulated the following principles when I started the Foundation:

That peer to peer-based technology reflects a change of consciousness
towards participation, and in turn, strengthens it.
That the âdistributed networkâ format, expressed in the specific
manner of peer to peer relations, is a new form of political
organising and subjectivity, and an alternative for the current
political/economic order, ie I believe that peer to peer allows for
âpermission-lessâ self-organisation to create common value, in a way
that is more productive than both the state and private for-profit
alternatives. People can now engage in peer production that creates
very complex âproductsâ that can achieve higher quality standards than
pure corporate competitors.

I also believe that it creates a new public domain, an information
commons, which should be protected and extended, especially in the
domain of common knowledge-creation; and that this domain, where the
cost of reproducing knowledge is near-zero, requires fundamental
changes in the intellectual property regime, as reflected by new forms
such as the free software movement; that universal common property
regimes, ie modes of peer property such as the general public licence
and the creative commons licences should be promoted and extended.

These principles developed by the free software movement, in
particular the general public licence, and the general principles
behind the open source and open access movements, provide for models
that could be used in other areas of social and productive life.

If we can connect this new mode of production, pioneered by knowledge
workers, with the older traditions of sharing and solidarity of
workers and farmers movements, then we can build a very strong
contemporary social movement that can transcend the failures of

I think it also offers youth a vision of renewal and hope, to create a
world that is more in tune with their values.

I call the new peer to peer mode a âtotal social factâ, because it
integratively combines subjectivity (new values), inter-subjectivity
(new relations), objectivity (an enabling technology) and
inter-objectivity (new forms of organisation) that mutually strengthen
each other in a positive feedback loop, and it is clearly on the
offensive and growing, but lacking âpolitical self-consciousnessâ. It
is this form of awareness that the P2P Foundation wants to promote.

Was this mostly your work, or were others involved in formulating
these principles?

I formulated the principles on my own, but also after at least two
years of reading, and of being attuned with the zeitgeist (zeitgeist
describes the intellectual, cultural, ethical and political climate,
ambience and morals of an era). Others were formulating similar ideas,
though in different ways. So as usual we should not claim too much
personal merit; we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the
past, and are simply lucky to accompany a deep shift in human
consciousness that would be taking place without us just as well. At
the most, we can try to put some extra grease in the machine.

What exactly does the Foundation do?

We want to be an interconnecting platform for people involved in
realising the new open and free, participatory and commons-oriented
paradigms in every social field. So, we are monitoring and describing
real-world initiatives, theoretical efforts, creating a library of
primary and secondary material, and trying to make sense of that
aggregation by developing a coherent set of concepts and principles.
We do this with a wiki, with nearly 8,000 pages of information, which
have been viewed over 5 million times; through a blog reaching about
35,000 unique users last year, a Ning community with a few hundred
members, and a number of mailing lists. The most active is the peer to
peer research list, where academics and non-academics can
collaboratively reach understandings. We also had two annual physical
meet-ups in Belgium and the UK, and have some national groups such as
in the Netherlands and Greece. Thereâs a lot of hidden activity acting
as connectors between various initiatives, which, despite the global
Internet, often donât know they are working on very similar projects
that could reinforce each other.

Peer to peer happens without us, but we want to add a little
interconnecting grease to the system. My ultimate aim is to create a
powerful social movement that can support the necessary reforms for
social justice, sustainability of the natural world, and opening up
science and culture to open and free sharing and collaboration, so
that the whole weight of the collective intelligence of humanity can
be brought to bear on the grave challenges we are facing.

How do you see the work that has already been done? Is it progressing
according to your expectations?

Iâm pleased on some levels, frustrated at others. In three years, we
have constructed a sizeable amount of interrelated information and
knowledge, and a âcommunity of understandingâ. I think we have a
âreally existing virtual communityâ that cares about the ideals that
we formulated. Each of these people are themselves active in their own
real-world projects, some of which will be crucial change agents in
the near future. Undoubtedly, the P2P Foundation is a global brand at
least on the level of Internet users, as we have not crossed the
boundary to mass media reporting. Our growth seems slow, but organic
and rather strong, with not so much turnover and a lot of loyalty. Our
internal culture of civil discourse seems very strong. On a personal
level, I have a little more social and reputational capital, and have
been privileged to explain P2P in several countries on four
continents, which has allowed me to relate physical presence with the
virtual network -- a strong combination.

My big frustration is that I failed to develop a âbusiness modelâ to
sustain myself and my family, so Iâm returning to paid employment in a
few weeks, which will necessarily diminish my engagement, which has
been full-time for the last three years, with the P2P Foundationâs

Do you see a P2P society as the state into which a society should
evolve naturally? Something like how capitalist society evolved from
feudal society?

If we look at the transition from slavery to feudalism, and from
feudalism to capitalism, I think we discover a similar pattern. An old
system in crisis and decline, the birth of more productive methods of
creating value, and both sections of the ruling class and of the
âproducingâ class morphing to adapt to the new possibilities. Before
feudalism and capitalism became disruptive to the old orders that they
replaced they actually were used to strengthen the old order, and
stave off their decline, because they were better ways of organising
production and social relationships. So, today, hyper-productive peer
to peer dynamics are being born in a mutually dependent relationship
with capitalism, but ultimately slated to replace it. But first it
needs to grow from seed form to parity form -- think of the situation
in Rome between the 5th and 10th century, or 18th century European
capitalism existing within the still-dominant remnants of the late
feudal order of the ancient regime. Today, we see knowledge and other
workers increasingly adopting modes of peer production, and
netarchical capitalists such as Google and YouTube enabling and
empowering sharing platforms, while extracting value from the value
engendered through that social cooperation. All these processes take
time, but that does not mean that they are necessarily smooth. The
more established interests try to stop more productive alternatives,
the more tension they create in the social system, the more this will
express itself in crisis form. Both the birth of feudalism and
capitalism were rather harsh transitions. This time we may hope that
the global crisis of the biosphere, and the speed of innovation
through global networks will speed up the process of change

I sometimes use the concept of âconditional inevitabilityâ to name
this state of affairs in which a form of change is both necessary and
likely, but can still be derailed because it depends on human agency
and social struggle and creativity.

The alienation of work from the worker is one of the important aspects
that Karl Marx has written about. The peer to peer system that you are
trying to develop theoretically appears to tackle this issue. Have
discussions at the P2P Foundation taken this aspect into consideration

Peer to peer is a form of what Alan Page Fiske calls communal
shareholding in which each freely contributes to a common that is
universally available to those who may need it. Because it is based on
a passion-based free engagement and allows the producers to be
autonomous and in charge of their own production process, it is in
fact already a non-alienated form of work. It allows for the free
self-unfolding of the individual, for autonomy-in-interdependence! It
corresponds to what Marx called communism, the final stage of his
future history, which was to be preceded by socialism, where each
would get according to his contribution. The irony is that this mode
of commonism is already being born within capitalism itself, creating
a post-monetary seed within it. The important question is whether this
seed form, now combined with capitalism, could also be combined with
some form of socialism in the world of physical material production.
My answer is yes, it is possible, but I prefer to leave this question
open and to combine peer to peer as the core process for immaterial
production and social innovation, with a pluralist economy for dealing
with physical production, where individuals can choose whether they
want to follow market-based exchange forms, or any other. The issue
for me is not the market, but only capitalism as an infinite growth
form and therefore a cancer for the biosphere and humanity. Capitalism
will pass (if not, it would destroy us, and I donât believe humanity
will allow this to happen), but we may want to keep the market.

The important thing is to be non-coercive about it. As Eben Moglen
said: âFree softwareâ (and thus peer production) is the wet dream of
both capitalists and communists. What he means I think is that we can
marry the strivings for freedom of liberalism with the strivings for
equality of the left in a way in which both are not just mutually
compatible but dependent on each other.

Have you thought about the system of governance that could be suitable
for a P2P society? Would it be more akin to that in a capitalist
society or to that in a socialist society -- you know, multi-party
versus single party with a kind of democratic centrism?

I think we have to recognise different levels. The reality of peer
governance is already well-known from the experience of Free Software
communities, and we must insist that it is non-representational and
avoids conflicts over the allocation of resources through coordinated
self-allocation. But this can only fully work in the immaterial world.
Note how Free Software and open design communities distinguish between
the self-aggregation of voluntary work, and on the NGOs that are in
charge of the scarcity-driven infrastructure of cooperation, which use
democratic procedures. In society as a whole therefore, and though
that part may shrink as we design and engineer more abundance, we
still need democracy, though perhaps in a much more diversified way
than today. So imagine a level of pure peer governance in the open
production communities, representative democracy, and hybrid formats
in between. In any case, in our complexifying society, we have to
expect a significant increase of participatory processes. This
democracy should be as far removed from capitalist pressure as it is
from totalitarian centralised planning, but I imagine that weâll have
much more global coordination of resource flows, and not just market

How do you see the present global meltdown? Is it one of the crises
that capitalist society faces once in a while? Or do you think it
could possibly be the beginning of the decline of capitalism?

I tend to trust the analysis in terms of Kondratieff cycles as
expressed by Carlota Perez in her work on technological revolutions
(http://www.carlotaperez.org/). The last one started with World War II
and was ascendant into the early-â70s, after which the declining phase
of neoliberalism took over choosing the speculative route that now
collapsed. Weâll need seven or 10 years to go through a severe
cleaning out, but after a period of reform, such as perhaps that
carried out by Obama in the next few years, we can expect a new
up-cycle based on green capitalism, and extensive usage of
participatory processes. This will allow P2P processes to move from
the margins to the parity level. There is no chance of achieving
sustainability without changing individual lifestyles and
participatory design.

After this, weâll reach the national crisis stage of the next
Kondratieff cycle, and I believe this is the moment when the peer to
peer logic can become dominant. In the end, the infinite growth
mechanism of capitalism is incompatible with our finite natural
environment, and necessarily needs to be replaced.

Do you believe that capitalism has to grow and mature before a society
can change to P2P or something similar?

I think that capitalism is already beyond maturity and has reached
senility, but thereâs still life in the old man. So I see the green
capitalist global compact as the last attempt at integration, and
though it will have some success, it is clear that a system based on
infinite growth is doomed. What we have to do imperatively is separate
the idea of markets and trading from the idea of infinite growth. Some
people are talking about natural capitalism (David Korten, Paul
Hawken, Hazel Henderson) or capitalism 3.0 (Peter Barnes) to indicate
the hybrid nature of the potential new system, which will combine
markets with participation and peer to peer-based social innovation.
But the concept is misleading, as the system cannot possibly be based
on capital accumulation. I think Umair Haque is also a good guide as
to the logic of the new post-capitalist system.

What is your personal opinion?

As indicated in the germ form theory of Oekonux, with which I broadly
agree, first we have an emerging germ form -- the situation today.
Then, it may evolve to a parity level, in which peer to peer and the
market will co-exist. But at some point, the meta-system of infinite
growth that is capitalism will and must break down if we want humanity
and our planet to survive, and at that moment the old meta-system of
capitalism will become a sub-system, a market form for certain
specific rival goods within the broader meta-system of peer to peer.
But humanity always first tries the familiar solutions, so before
thinking of a more radical overhaul, a green capitalist phase is
unavoidable but also necessary in order to allow participation to
reach a parity level. To answer specifically concerning ânatural
capitalismâ: to the degree that we succeed in forcing the market to
integrate the external cost of natural destruction, and to fund its
dependence on social innovation, to that degree the infinite growth
mechanism will be broken and what weâll have will be a market form but
no longer a âcapitalistâ one.

How do you think, in a situation like that in India where feudalism
has still not disappeared and capitalism is growing, the ideas of P2P
will work?

I think we have to think in terms of neo-traditional economics and
policies. This means understanding the commonality between
pre-materialist and post-materialist logics, seeing that both are
united through the priority given to immaterial wellbeing. On the
basis of the generalised crisis of capitalism, local resilient
communities and the local elite can both look to leapfrogging
possibilities, using high technology, but in a re-localised framework.
For example, we can imagine local elite families investing in
production facilities for smart cars using renewable energy, but
allied with global open design and tinkering communities; and we can
imagine farmer movements linking up with brothers and sisters
worldwide in order to exchange practical knowledge and experience in
order to avoid taking the route of soil-destroying industrial
agriculture. There are many possibilities, if the awareness is there
to profit from them.

(V Sasi Kumar is a scientist and writer based in Thiruvananthapuram)

Infochange News & Features, July 2009

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