Future section


 239th Meeting – Tuesday, October 14th 2003

Peer to Peer: premises of a new layer in civilization?

A talk by Michel Bauwens



Present: Melissa Armstrong, Caitlin Black, Larkin Boero, Bonnie Brereton, John Butt, John Cadet, Hans Decrop, Adrian Doyle, Elizabeth Dunbar, Danielle Hawkins, Mariah Kennedy, Carool Kersten, Sylvie Kersten, Manfred Liebig, Uma Kwong Mangus, Maggie McKerron, Eli Morin, Ploysri Porananond, Troy Schmidt, David Steane, Alexis Szejnaga, Laura van Vourhees, Brock Wilson, Laura Woltag. An audience of 24.


Michel Bauwens started his career as information analyst with USIA, moved on to the animal feed/ petrochemical sector as business information manager/cybrarian for BP, and moved on to create a magazine on digital developments, two Internet dotcoms (dealing with intranets and cyber-marketing respectively) before finalizing his corporate career as strategic planner and Director of the Digital Futures Initiative for a large Belgian telecommunications company. In 1993, he was elected as European Information Professional of the Year. In addition, he has been teaching The Anthropology of Digital Society for graduate students at a business school, (while co-editing two books with the same title which were scientific bestsellers in Belgium), produced a three-hour documentary on the metaphysics of technology, as well as a shorter documentary on the religious aspects of the technology craze in Japan. As part of a lifelong philosophical and spiritual quest, he has encountered various religious paths, directed a private library on comparative religion as well as an NGO dealing with comparative advice on spiritual and psychological paths. After a gap of a year traveling the world and a term studying Thai Cultural Studies at Payap, he intends to create a new 'second half of' life’ in Chiang Mai.

Michel Bauwens’s summary of his talk:

Peer to peer is a combination of distributive intelligence and cooperative work ethic that is expanding more and more as a format for technology, and also in the social and political sphere, even in the field of religion and spirituality. Hence, it will also profoundly affect Thailand and is to be seen as one of the main challenges of future adaptation. The following are excerpts from the lecture, with the exception of the part dealing with spirituality. A full version can be found at http://isrc.payap.ac.th/document/papers/paper01.pdf

Peer to Peer as the newly emerging civilisational format

Our contention is that “Peer to Peer” is first of all the primary form of the technological and productive infrastructure of the current phase of cognitive capitalism, but at the same time there are grave doubts that the current system can actually use P2P to its full potential, hence, it may also be a pointer to a new phase of our civilisation with adapted formats of collective organisation, cultural worldviews, and subjective realities. That at least is our contention. We use the notion of cognitive capitalism to distinguish it from the earlier phases of merchant capitalism, based on the use of slave labour and serfdom in a still feudal context, and the phase of industrial capitalism, based on the use of free forms of mass labour, a form that is, at least in the West, declining, and making place for a new logic based on immaterial labour and ‘immaterial production’.

Indeed, in the current phase of our political economy, where the production of material goods is increasingly automated and dependent on immaterial factors, and where immaterial production is itself becoming a dominant factor (in its two expression of symbolic production by knowledge workers, and service provision by ‘affective’ workers), peer to peer is already the primary format of our infrastructure. First of all there is of course the well-known Internet, which is no longer organised as a centralised or pyramidal network as earlier computer infrastructures were (as were the mainframe and client-server configurations), but as an ever-changing configuration of a network of networks. This is not only true for the network as a whole, but also for the format of technological organisation within the enterprise, where the client-server format is being abandoned in favor of a webification of the infrastructure. Very near on the horizon is the large-scale implementation of the concept of grid computing, which is an even more radical implementation of the peer-to-peer concept, where every computer of the network can be used for any application according to availability. And within enterprises, while the process of webification continues apace despite the dotcom technology bubble, the next stage appears to be the implementation of Hypernets, which differ from the classic Internet in that not only core applications are webified, but also the peripheral applications with workers in the field, who now increasingly have access to networked devices that are no longer personal computers but a wide array of all kinds of ‘peripheral devices’. In the telecom industry, which was the author’s former area of expertise, networked models are increasingly replacing centralised models of telephone distribution, and of course there is the well-known explosion of P2P-based wireless transmission mode (Wi-Fi), very popular with civic movements for the independence it affords from the private telecom infrastructure. Let me remind readers that in Western countries only about a quarter of the population is estimated to be involved in material production, and that this percentage is diminishing by about half a percent every year, and that the primary working and communication tool of the knowledge workers are networked computers based on peer to peer-based models.

P2P as technology means that all participating computers and networks are considered interchangeable parts of the overall network, which no longer has an identifiable center or hierarchic structure, though there are variations amongst networks depending on the radicality of the P2P implementation; it also means that ‘intelligence is located everywhere in the periphery and available to all participants of the network, without any ‘bottlenecks of control’.

Very important in terms of public consciousness is of course that peer to peer has become the dominant form of music distribution (i.e. more music downloaded than actually bought via CD’s), and that this distribution uses peer to peer models of cooperatively united personal computers, connected worldwide into a single system of exchange. And also very important is the increasing speed of implementation of ‘open source’ Linux systems, which brings us to our second manifestation of peer-to-peer, not just as a format of technological infrastructure, but also as a true mode of production.

Indeed, today thousands of programmers are cooperatively working on establishing computer systems, mostly software but now also ‘open hardware’, that are in many cases becoming more productive than commercially produced counterparts, as was recently confirmed in a cover story of Business Week. Free Software, developed originally by Richard Stallman, says that all source code is common property and cannot be used for private gain (this is insured by the legal innovation that is the General Public License). Thus programmers worldwide are cooperating in building on the common knowledge base produced by all their predecessors. Open Source, originally proposed and developed by Eric Raymond, is a more liberal version of Free Software, which does not prohibit commercial use, but insures that the source code remains open to collective inspection. Obviously, the latter is more open to involvement by the business world. One of the most successful applications of open source collaboration is the Linux operating system, which is making rapid headway not only in governments worldwide, because of its marginal pricing as compared to software licences from private vendors, but is now very quickly making inroads in business as well, while consumer applications such as Star Office and Open Office insure that it will also be increasingly used as the interface for individual users. The majority of experts and users agree that most open source applications are more productive and bug free than their commercial counterparts. Though the progress has been slow, it has been inexorable so far, and is speeding up to a significant degree, with, for example, Michael Dell, chairman of the world’s largest computer firm, declaring that in two or three years, he expects one third of the computers that he sells to be operating on Linux rather than Microsoft.

However, what is important here is to understand that free software is not just a form of technology, but a true ‘third mode of production’, i.e. a way of producing things, right now mostly software, but with a huge potential for generalised industrial applications. Indeed today, even in industrial production, the marketing and production phases are dependent on the crucial design phase, which is wholly taking place using networked computers, and where the peer-to-peer method could be introduced without major problems. In the car industry for example, production is almost wholly outsourced using standardized parts, with the so-called car companies in fact essentially design and branding/marketing companies. This extension of P2P production modalities is actually being advocated by the German-based Oekonux group, which advocates a GPL society, based on extending the General Public Licence to other sectors of social life and production, and which counts several industrial engineers amongst its sympathizers and supporters.

Until now, the industrial world has known two modes of production, the free enterprise system on the one hand, and the centralised and authoritarian planning mode proposed by the now failed Eastern Bloc states. But here we have a cooperative mode, that is neither authoritarian, nor based on the motivation of gain, and that is a hugely significant development. A quick glance at history would be sufficient to show that specific technological modes of production and their associated ‘political economies’ are long-term but nevertheless transitory ways of organising the world and its production, as the succession of the system of Antiquity with the feudal and then the capitalist modes of production show. Nevertheless, the capitalist mode is sometimes presented as eternal by market fundamentalists with the good reason that the collectivist approach did not succeed as a viable alternative, and that it is human nature to be only motivated by greed. However, this argument is significantly weakened by the existence of an alternative which functions differently based on the non-hierarchical cooperation of thousands of peers worldwide, who are producing better quality material.

It is significant to see how the present system is reacting to that challenge: essentially by criminalising the new ways of software and music distribution. Thus the reaction is quite similar to the reactions of the feudal guilds when faced with the emerging capitalist mode, which was to try to outlaw it. However, when a system starts thwarting innovation and more productive applications than its own, it is a definite sign of a loss of legitimacy.

But let us continue our description of the peer-to-peer phenomenon: it is obvious that the success of such a new mode of production is based on new cultural practices, new ways of working with each other. This is best described in the book ‘The Hacker Ethic’ by Pekka Himmanen, an update and dialogue with an earlier classic by Max Weber. As you will remember Weber, in his ‘The Protestant Ethic’ and ‘The Spirit of Capitalism’ had explained how the new mentalities expressed by the Protestant Reformation, and especially Calvinism, were instrumental in creating better conditions for the development of industrial capitalism. In the current phase of cognitive capitalism, these practices, which the author calls the Friday-isation of Sunday’, are actually being exacerbated, and in fact, the ethics of organization and productivity (called the sphere of efficiency in a similar book by Jeremy Rifkin, entitled the ‘Age of Access’) are now not only being carried out to their extremes in the business world, but even being translated to the private world (called the sphere of intimacy by Rifkin). Exploitation of the body and the natural world is being complemented by the exploitation of the human psyche and mind, in a similar unsustainable fashion. But the interesting second part of Himmanen’s book outlines an emerging counter-movement, that was first seen in the communities of passionate programmers (the original definition of hackers, before the term got distorted in common parlance to mean authors of computer mischief). He notes that the way they organize their workday, their ways of working and learning, are completely different from Weber’s model, in fact many times opposed to it. The new model is a form of ‘passionate play’, interspersed with large periods of non-productive life, based on egalitarian cooperation. This point is very important because what we see here is that the objective phenomena of technological infrastructure and modes of production are being translated into subjective experiencing and inter-subjective modes of cooperation. Peer to peer is therefore also an emerging cultural format.

Equally significant are the new methods of political experiencing and organizing. The only growing and innovative worldwide political movement is the alterglobalisation movement, organized as a network of networks on a global scale, intensively using networked forms of organization and technology, and capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of activists and sympathizers on a moment’s notice. Many of its spokespersons insist that their movement no longer fits in a model of representation, but that everybody represents themselves and their ever-changing configuration of political interests and engagement. This is echoed in new radical political theories, such as those of Toni Negri in ‘Empire’, Miguel Benasayag in ‘Les Contre-Pouvoirs’, and John Holloway in ‘Revolution without Power’. There is a lot more to say about this, and I have, in another essay, developed three transition scenarios to a more fully P2P organized and inspired world. One, defended by Richard Barbrook, says that peer to peer and capitalism will co-exist peacefully, just as feudalism tolerated the communist forms of the Catholic Church and its monasteries, and that producers will go back and forth between the two spheres. The second scenario is more negative, and is developed as a warning by Jeremy Rifkin: the new forms of cognitive capitalism are eating away in the cultural and intimate spheres, turning not only everything that we hold dear into commodities, but dispossessing people of any ownership of immaterial production, basing everything on forms of leasing and licensing which could be called informational feudalism. Faced with this, defensive strategies are on order, such as the French ‘exception culturelle’ (just recently enshrined in the draft of the new European constitution!). And then there is a more optimistic scenario, best defended by the new French review called ‘Multitudes’. The argument here is that cognitive capitalism is hugely dependent on such cooperative intellectual work (called the General Intellect) but at the same time cannot by itself create the conditions to nurture it. Thus at one point it will be forced to accept the Universal Social Wage, which will create the conditions that not only make cognitive capitalism stable and growing and end the current era of continued systemic crisis, but at the same time creates a cooperative sphere that goes beyond it, letting that sphere grow as well, until such utopian times as the latter will dominate the former. This is not the proper venue to go into details of political economy, and these ideas are further developed in another essay that is solely devoted to the peer-to-peer phenomenon.

Before discussing the impact of peer to peer on spirituality proper, I hope to have convinced the reader that P2P is not just a transient technological phenomenon, but also a kind of key format which can increasingly be found in diverse areas of human cultural life, in the objective organizational forms, and in individual and collective cultural expressions. Just as we can see in the past that civilizations have been based on a dominant form of human relationships (authoritarian in the pre-capitalist forms, commodity fetishism and utilitarianism in capitalism), so we can envisage I believe a form of civilization for which it is the peer to peer format that is its central and most basic form of human relating and producing. That these various aspects of P2P appear concurrently in the four quadrants described in the beginning has been instrumental in strengthening my primary intuition that P2P is a fundamental civilisational process.