1.A. What this essay is about
1.B. Some acknowledgments
1.A. What this essay is about
The following essay describes the emergence, or expansion, of a specific type of relational dynamic, which I call peer to peer. It’s a form of human network-based organisation which rests upon the free participation of equipotent partners, engaged in the production of common resources, without recourse to monetary compensation as key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control. It creates a Commons, rather than a market or a state, and relies on social relations to allocate resources rather than on pricing mechanisms or managerial commands.
This format is emerging throughout the social field: as a format of technology (the point to point internet, filesharing, grid computing, the Writeable Web initiatives, blogs), as a third mode of production which is also called Commons-based peer production (neither centrally planned nor profit-driven), producing hardware, software (often called Free Libre Open Sources Software or FLOSS) and intellectual and cultural resources (wetware) that are of great value to humanity (Wikipedia), and as a general mode of knowledge exchange and collective learning which is massively practiced on the internet. It also emerges as new organizational formats in politics, spirituality; as a new ‘culture of work’. This essay thus traces the expansion of this format, seen as a “isomorphism" (= having the same format), in as many fields as possible. The common format in which the peer to peer dynamic emerges is the format of the "distributed network", which, according to the defintion of A. Galloway in his book Protocol, differs both from the centralized network (all nodes have to pass through one single hub), and from the decentralized network (all nodes have to pass through hubs). In a distributed network the nodes, as autonomous agents, can connect through any number of links. Hubs may exist, but are not obligatory.
The essay tries not only to describe, but attempts to provide an explanatory framework of why it is emerging now, and how it fits in a wider evolutionary framework (not in the sense of an inevitable natural evolution, but as an intentional moral breakthrough).
The underlying logic of development in which the emergence of P2P is best understood, may be by viewing 'participation' as the key variable, seeing how it intensifies historically in various social formations. This idea was best expressed by John Heron in a personal communication:
"There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight and not in an evolutionary logic:
(1) autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;
(2) 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.;
(3) wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;
(4) commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavour."
Note that within most of the sections, the organisation is as follows: the first subsection is descriptive, the second is explanatory, and the third is historical. In the latter, I use the triune distinction premodernity/modernity/postmodernity, well aware that it is a simplification, and that it collapses many important distinctions, say between the tribal and the agrarian era. But as an orienting generalization that allows the contrasting of the changes occurring after the emergence of modernity, it remains useful.Thus, the concept of ‘premodern’, means the societies based on tradition, before the advent of industrial capitalism, with fixed social roles and a social organisation inspired by what it believes to be a divine order; modern means essentially the era of industrial capitalism; finally, the choice of the term postmodern does not denote any specific preference in the ‘wars of interpretation’ between concepts such as postmodernity, liquid modernity, reflexitive modernity, transmodernity etc.. It simple means the contermporary period, more or less starting after 1968, which is marked by the emergence of the informational mode of capitalism. I will use the term cognitive capitalism most frequently in my characterization of the current regime, as it corresponds to the interpretation, which is the most convincing in my view. The French magazine Multitude is my main source for such interpretations. It's essential meaning is the replacement of an older 'regime of accumulation', centered on machines and the division of labor corresponding to them; and one centered on being part of a process of accumulation of knowledge and creativity, as the new mainspring of power and profit. Finally, note that in the accompagnying graphs of figures, I sometimes use the "early modern/late modern/P2P era" framework. In this way, the current time frame can be distinguished from a hypothetical coming situation where P2P is more dominant than it is today, and what that would change in the characteristics of such a society.
I will conclude my essay with the conclusion that P2P is nothing else than a premise of a new type of civilization that is not exclusively geared towards the profit motive. What I have to convince the user of is that
- 1) a particular type of human relational dynamic is growing very fast across the social fields, and that such combined occurrence is the result of a deep shift in ways of feeling and being (ontology), of knowing (epistemology), and of core value constellations (axiology)
- 2) That it has a coherent logic that cannot be fully contained within the present ‘regime’ of society.
- 3) that it is not an utopia , but, as ‘an already existing social practice’, the seed of a likely major transformation to come. I will not be arguing that there is an 'inevitable evolutionary logic at work', but rather that a new and intentional moral vision, holds the potential for a major breakthrough in social evolution, leading to the possibility of a new political, economic, and cultural 'formation' with a new coherent logic.
Implicit in my interpretation of peer to peer as a social formation, is that it is accompanied by a nascent socio-political movement, much as industrial class relations triggered a labour movement. In the case of the 'peer to peer movement' this movement concerns itself with the promotion and defense of the Commons, i.e. the existence of a common-property regime that exists alongside the state and the market, but which is also under threat by a frenetic movement to privately appropriate common resources.
Such a large overview will inevitably bring errors of interpretation concerning detailed fields. I would appreciate if readers could bring them to my attention. But apart from these errors, the essay should stand or fall in the context of its most general interpretative point: that there is indeed a isomorphic emergence of peer to peer throughout the social field, that despite the differences in expression, it is the same phenomena, and that it is not a marginal, but a 'fundamental' development. It is on this score that my effort should be judged. If the effort is indeed judged to be successful, I then would hope that this essay inspires people from these different fields to connect, aware that they are sharing a set of values, and that these values have potential in creating a better, but not perfect or ideal, society.
How does the explanatory framework which I will provide for P2P, differ from the use of the earlier metaphor of the network society, described by Manuel Castells and many others, and lately in particular by the network sociality concept proposed by Andreas Wittel? The best way to differentiate the approaches is to see P2P as a subset of network conceptions.
If you would have been a social scientist during the lifetime of Marx and witnessed the emergence and growth of the factory-based industrial model, and you would then have arrived at the equivalent of what social network theory is today, i.e. an analysis of mainstream society and sociality. This is what the network sociality model of Andreas Wittel provides. But at the same time that the factory system was developing, a reaction was created as well. Workers were creating cooperatives and mutualities, unions and new political parties and movements, which would go on to fundamentally alter the world. Today, this is what happens with peer to peer. Whereas Castells and Wittel focus on the general emergence of network society and society, and describes the networks overall and the dominant features of it, I want and tend to focus on the birth of a counter-movement, centered around a particular format of sociality based in distributed networks, where the focus is on creating participation for all, and not the buttressing of the 'meshworks of exploitation'. As the dominant forces of society are mutating to networked forms of organizing the political economy (called Empire by Toni Negri), a bottom-up reaction against this new alienation is occurring (alienated, because in Empire, the meshwork are at the service of creating ever more inequality), by the forces of what Negri and Hardt call the multitude(s). These forces are using peer to peer processes, and a peer to peer ethos, to create new forms of social life, and this is what I want to document in this essay.
1.B. Some acknowledgments
This essay is part of a larger project, the writing of a French-language book, which I’m undertaking with Remi Sussan, a Paris-based free-lance journalist working for ‘digital’ magazines like TechnikArt. Hence, the continuing dialogue with him has been a great source of inspiration and clarification in terms of the ideas expressed in this essay. We share an enthousiasm for understanding P2P, though we frequently differ in our interpretations. The current essay therefore reflects my own vision.
A first essay on P2P, essentially descriptive, but supported by many citations, is available on the internet on the Noosphere.cc site, and was written in 2003. However, most of these citations have now been integrated as endnotes. In this current essay, which was written pretty much in a ‘free flow of consciousness’ mode, though I will mention quite a few names of social theorists, citations have been kept at a minimum, but I may add them in later version as footnotes.
Some acknowledgements about the sources used: amongst the contemporary and near-contemporary thinkers that I have been reading most recently in preparing this essay are: Norbert Elias (Elias, 1975), Louis Dumont (Vibert, 2004), and Cornelis Castoriadis (Castoriadis, 1975); the Italian-French school of thought around Multitude magazine, especially Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, Maurizio Lazzarato (Lazzarato, 2004), Philippe Zafirian (Zafirian, 2003).Amongst the specific P2P pioneers I have read, are Pekka Himanen (Himanen, 2002), for his study of work culture; John Heron (Heron, 1998) and Jorge Ferrer (Ferrer, 2001), for their work on participatory spirituality. Timothy Wilken of Synearth.org was instrumental in the discovery of the theories of Edward Haskell and Arthur Coulter, on synergetics and cooperation, which are explained on his website. Mackenzie Wark's Hacker Manifesto (Wark, 2004) and Alexander Galloway's Protocol (Galloway, 2004), have strongly influenced my analysis of P2P power structures.