2.3.B. P2P and Technological Determinism

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2.3.B. P2P and Technological Determinism

Starting our description with the emergence of P2P within the field of technology could be misconstrued as saying that P2P is a result of technology, in a ‘technology-deterministic fashion’.

The precise role of technology in human evolution is subject to debate. A first group of positions sees technology as ‘neutral’. Humans want more control over their environment, want to go beyond necessity,and in that quest, built better and better tools. But how we use these tools is up to us. Many inventors of technology and discoverers of scientific truths have argued this way, saying for example that atomic energy can be used for good (energy) or for bad (war), but that is entirely a political decision.

A different set of positions argues that on the contrary, technological development has a logic of its own, that as a system is goes beyond the intention of any participating individual, and in fact becomes their master. In such a reading, technological evolution is inevitable and has unforeseen consequences. In the pessimistic vision, it’s in fact the ultimate form of alienation. This is so because technology is an expression of just a part of our humanity, instrumental reason, but when embedded in the technological systems and its machines, it then forces us to ressemble it, and we indeed follow the logic of machines loose many parts of our full humanity. Think of the positions of Heidegger, Baudrillard, and Virilio as exemplars of such a type of analysis. Like-minded analysis would point out that though strict Taylorism has disappeared from immaterial-based production ,the factory model has in fact spread out throughout society now, forming a kind of ‘Social Taylorism’. Efficiency and productivity thinking has taken over the sphere of intimacy. There has been a dramatic destruction of social knowledge and skill, of autonomous cultures, and this type of knowledge has been ‘appropriated’ by the system of capital, and re-sold to us a commodities. Think of paid-for online dating, as a symptom of the loss of skill in dating, as one example.

Technological determinism can also have a optimistic reading. In this view, for example represented by the progress ideology of the late 19th century, and currently by the technological transhumanists, such as Kurzweil (Kurzweil, 2000), technology represents an increasing mastery and control over nature, a means of going beyond the limitations set to us by nature, and, for this type of interpretation, that is an entirely good thing.

The position I personally feel the closest to is the ‘critical philosophy of technology’ developed by Andrew Feenberg (Feenberg, 1991, 1999). In his analysis, technological artifacts are a social construction, reflecting the various social interests: those of capital, those of the engineering community conceiving it, but also, those of the critical voices within that community, and of the ‘consumers’ subverting the original aims of technology for entirely unforeseen usages. Feenberg comes very close to recognize the new form of power that we discuss in section four: i.e. the protocollary power (Galloway, 2004) which concerns the ‘code’. The very form of the code, whether it is for the hardware or the software, reflects what usages can be made of technology.

It is in this sense that I see a first important relation between the emergence of P2P and its technological manifestations. The engineers who conceived the point to point internet already had a wholly new set of conceptions which they integrated in their design. It was in fact explicitely designed to enable peer-based scientific collaboration. Thus, the emergence of peer to peer as a phenomena spanning the whole social field is not ‘caused’ by technology; it is rather the opposite, the technology reflects a new way of being and feeling, which we will discuss in section 6A in particular. This position is a version of that put forward by Cornelis Castoriadis in his "L'Institution Imaginaire de la Societe". Society is not just a physical arrangement, or a rational-functional arrangement, but everything is experienced symbolically and reflects a meaning that cannot be reduced to the real or the rational. It is the product of a 'radical social imaginary'. And this imaginary though rooted in the past (through the symbolic meaning of institutions), is nevertheless a constitutive creation of mankind. Technology is just such a creation, a dimension of instituted society, that cannot be divorced from the other elements . In this context, peer to peer is the product of a newly arising radical social imaginary. Nevertheless, this does not mean that technology is not an important factor.

Why is that? In a certain sense, peer to peer, understood as a form of participation in the commons, i.e. as communal shareholding, which we discuss in section 3.4.C, has ‘always existed’ as a particular relational dynamic. It was especially strong in the more egalitarian tribal era, with its very limited division of labor, before the advent of property and class division. But it was always limited to small bands. After the tribal era, as we enter the long era of class-based civilization, forms of communal shareholding and egalitarian participation have survived, but always subvervient, first to the authority structures of feudalism and similar ‘land-based systems’, then to the ‘market pricing’ system of capitalism. But the situation is now different, because the development of P2P technology is an extraordinary vector for its generalization as a social practice, beyond the limitations of time and space, i.e. geographically bounded small bands. What we now have for the first time is a densely interconnected network of affinity-based P2P networks. Thus, the technological format that is now becoming dominant, is an essential part of a new feedback loop, which strengthens the emergence of P2P to a degree not seen since the demise of tribal civilization. It is in this particular way that the current forms of P2P are a historical novelty, and not simply a repeat of the tolerated forms of egalitarian participation in essentially hierarchical and authoritarian social orders.

To repeat: it is not the technology that causes P2P. Rather, as technology, it is itself an expression of a deep shift in the epistemology and ontology occurring in our culture. But nevertheless, this technology, once created, becomes an extraordinary amplifier of the existing shift. It allows a originally minoritarian cultural shift to eventually affect larger and larger numbers of people. Finally, that shift in our culture, is itself a function of the emergence of a field of abundance, the informational field, which is itself strongly related to the technological base that has helped its creation.

To explain this argument, let us formulate this question of ‘why now?’, in a slightly different manner. Technology philosophers such as Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, 1994) and others, have pointed out that technology is an ‘extension of our bodies’, or more precisely of the faculties of our bodies and minds. In a simplified way: tribal-era technologies, such as spears and arrows, reflect the extremeties of our limbs, the nails and fingers. Agricultural era technologies reflect the extension of our muscular system and the limbs proper: arms and legs. Industrial era technologies reflect our central body and its internal metabolic functions: the transformation of raw materials into more refined products that can be used by our body. Industrial economies are about producing, distributing and consuming physical products. But the information economy era is characterized by the externalization of our nervous system (telephone and telegraph) and our minds (computers), with a logic of first one-to-one communication technologies, then many to one (mass media), and finally with the internet and computer networks: many to many.

If we look at history in such a broad and large way, we can see P2P principles operating in the small bands of the tribal era. But as soon as society complexified itself through more and more elaborate division of labor, such was the complexity of organisation society, that it seemed to make more sense to create centralized institutions. According to system theorists, ‘fixed arrangements dramatically reduce transaction costs’. In a Darwinian sense, one could say that they could better manage information scarcity, so that a lesser number of players could rationalize the organisation of such complexity, through hierarchical formal rules. After the revolution of print, followed by the invention of electronic communication, and a dramatic lessening of information scarcity, we see a further integration of a more differentiated world system, and the emergence of a market, though within that market, it still made more sense to have larger and larger monopolistic players. With the advent of worldwide communication networks through, and before the internet these were a monopoly of the large companies, we see the occurrence of major changes in organizational logic: a flattening of hierarchies. According to system theorists complex systems cannot themselves control there increasing number of ever-more efficient subunits, unless by granting them ever-more increasing functional autonomy. The larger system controls whether a subunit has carried a task, but no longer how it is carried out. Thus his law of ‘requisite hierarchy’ which states that the need for hierarchy diminishes in so far as the subunits increase their own capacity for control. And the 'law of requisite variety' of Arvid Aulin , which states that where internal controls or external regulation is absent, hierarchy is needed. Thus one of the keys to understand current processes is that communication technologies have enabled this kind of control and regulation to such a degree, as shown in P2P processes, that centralized command and control can in fact be overcome to a very great extent. Or more correctly, that the subunits become primary, down to the level of individual participants, who can now voluntarily defer to the subunit for minimal control of ‘what is produced’ (and no longer ‘how it is produced’), while the subunits to the same vis a vis the overall system. Within corporations P2P processes can only partially thrive, because they have to protect the profit motive, but outside the corporation, this limit can be overcome, and those processes of ‘production going outside the boundaries of the corporation’ are increasingly showing that the profit imperative, and the private appropriation of the social-cooperative processes, is becoming counter-productive. In a lot more simpler terms, let us then conclude that the development of information-processing capabilities has liberated cooperation from the constraints of time and space. Thus, while accepting the argument that P2P processes have always existed, but confined to small bands (or, it eventually emerged for very short periods in revolutionary situations only to be defeated by their then still more efficient authoritarian and centralized enemies), it is indeed ‘only now’, that such massive emergence of P2P is possible. We must thus inevitably conclude that technology <IS> a very important factor in this generalized emergence.