Introduction to P2P Relationality

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Production, Sociality, Relations, Subjects

The P2P approach to relations models itself on a generous reading of cybernetics, a field dedicated to a particular type of machine communications network. But favored for its open-ness, P2P serves as an ideal model for voluntary, democratic, and distributed social networks also. What it lacks, in the relationships that bind cultural traditions, say, or that cement political power, is to its advantage. For P2P permits the selection of relations on a productive and creative basis. For example, in grassroots fundraising and social awareness movements, in collaborative software development, and in online communities.

Given the remarkable popularity of sites like MySpace.com, it only makes sense that the P2P organization of so many networked phenomena would suggest itself as a means of going one step further: organization of society. To this end there have been a number of attempts made at articulating hive mind behaviors, collective intelligences, distributed and collaborative organizations and social movements. Many of which combine networked communication technologies with like-minded and progressive users—and for impressive results. Bloggers and MySpacers alike are today credited with unseating incumbent politicians in the United States, or with finding and rescuing missing classmates and preventing violence in schools.

P2P's power here is in communication, the mode of reproduction to which cybernetics owed its initial insights. And because we humans, like our technical systems, communicate, and in communicating, reproduce our relationships, P2P offers a powerful model for organizing relations. The question at hand, then, becomes one of organization.

As soon as we have take relations for granted, we can move on to matters of how relations are organized, for what purpose and to what end. We can ask who is organized, and on what basis are these relations maintained. We don't have to ask whether relations exist, but ask about their organization instead.

P2P is a structural model, and as such captures spatial relations well. In fact network relations theory, which is a field close to P2P, often speaks of paths, trails, walks, and other spatial distances and routes across networks and among network nodes. But structuralism (once the preferred approach of many anthropologists and sociologists) has one deep shortcoming: its blind spot for time and history. The spatial bias of structuralism freezes relations in time. Though a structural analysis of a society's relations may be undertaken over time, the model's representation of relations does insufficient service to temporal representation. As a result, structures will appear stable when in fact they are not, or static when in fact they are dynamic and changing.

As an alternative to structuralism, some have taken up systems theories, and most recently, auto-poetic systems theories. These have the advantage (for social systems) of being process oriented, and of drawing a distinction not between parts and whole but between system and environment. And this trend resonates with the P2P community's emphasis on production, and the organization of relations around productive and collaborative efforts (which are also process intensive).

Still, there remains an issue of central importance: subjectivity. This was a problem faced by structuralists before us: if a structure is said to exist, how is it that its participants/members reproduce it? Are we, as individuals, aware of these structures and are we conscious participants in maintaining them? If so, would we not have to know these structures through and through? If, on the other hand, they work through us, if they organize our relations without our conscious participation, then how? Some have answered that it's in the normative binding of communication and interaction that we unwittingly commit ourselves to these invisible forces. Language, as a system of normative rules governing appropriate behavior and speech, speaking itself through us. And correspondingly, that our social practices, are as a set of codes, rules of the game, rituals and ceremonies, whose meaning we reproduce even in the simplest of gestures (a handshake or a nod of recognition).

Much work lies ahead, but it promises to be interesting as well as challenging. We'll use this section to explore ideas related to how P2P can organize social relations of all kinds, and ask, too, how best to think about and conceptualize forceful connections between the organization of individuals and the subjective choices and relationships that make up the human experience. In particular, we'll focus on communication technologies and tools, and on new social arrangements. We'll examine conflict and cooperation, varieties of groups, communities, and publics. We'll ask about the organization of normative institutions and also practices that survive outside or in spite of established norms. P2P, given its support for a free, enjoyable, and just organization of life, has shown that social relations can just as well transform as preserve themselves. We do not yet know what life can do, but we our eyes are open.

More Information

Gravity7 maintains a blog on social software and social interaction design at http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/