Peer-to-Peer Themes and Urban Priorities for the Self-organizing Society

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Article: Beyond Left and Right: Peer-to-Peer themes and urban priorities for the self-organizing society. Nikos A. Salingaros. University of Texas at San Antonio.

A contribution from April 26, 2010.


This essay presents desirable social functioning as basically a matter of free individual decision. I discuss two basic polarities: Left versus Right, and P2P (Peer-to-Peer) versus Global-mass-society. Each polarity takes certain distinctions and concerns as key to understanding political life. A self-organizing P2P society is driven by individuality, publicly-shared patterns, and common culture based on shared loves; whereas Global-mass-society is based upon groupthink, expertise, and glitzy consumerism, and is run by a small group of intertwined political, economic, and knowledge elites. These two polarities Left/Right, and P2P/Global-mass-society are split in their basic attitudes towards the past, towards authority, and towards religion. I argue that the concerns that have divided Left from Right are less important now than formerly, and that the P2P/Global-mass-society polarity is a better way to understand many important issues today. I then propose that the concerns that have motivated both Left and Right suggest the possibility of enlisting both on the side of P2P. We can overcome the traditional Left/Right distinctions in the name of a new political humanism.


Nikos Salingaros:


I would like to respond to Michel Bauwens’ article published on 3 April 2010, which examines the nature of a broad alliance that could be expected to adopt a new P2P (Peer-to-Peer) worldview. Bauwens correctly questions whether the old Left/Right divide is still valid. It probably is, but it is certainly neither the only nor the predominant divisor of society into groups with opposing worldviews. I have been exploring contrasting viewpoints from the perspective of art, architecture, and urbanism for some time, and would like to suggest a view of contemporary problems. This approach may hopefully yield insights that could be exploited in moving towards a more humanly-adaptive P2P society.

What I have learned from Bauwens is that the political/economic spectrum consists of a myriad of contrasting approaches, and that any simplistic interpretation is not only wrong but also dangerous. While a transparently simple interpretation and model is logically attractive, especially to the scientifically-minded reader, such approaches have led to drastic errors in the past. Examples are numerous. Peer-to-peer orientations are being debated on both sides of the political spectrum, and any important advance has to emerge out of finding a commonality in a set of P2P priorities. A P2P infrastructure is a potentially emancipatory technology that allows the free aggregation of individuals, yet such cooperative and collective organization is distinct from the groupthink pathology. A central theme of this essay is to distinguish between individuality and groupthink orientations. The P2P approach emerges as an essentially networked form of individuality. In the best cases, the socially-embedded human being is empowered by the P2P framework to create free communities based upon diversity. Nevertheless, the danger of falling into the groupthink mentality is also present in P2P practices and society, and very much so. We have to focus on the warning signs so as to be able to avoid groupthink when it happens, or catch it as it is about to happen. Groupthink oriented effects have occurred in collective practices of decision-making, and mainstreaming trends now appear on the Web.

Bauwens summarizes the difference that I discuss here in other terms. In his words, both Left and Right are divided by a centralist/decentralist dynamic, whereas P2P re-introduces this dynamic of localization in human history. This decentralist approach and movement runs contrary to previous decades of gigantism and centralization. By abandoning the visible hand of centralized planning, we move towards mutual coordination on a global scale, involving individual and collective endeavors. While wary of the invisible hand of greedy market forces that treat the individual only as something to be exploited, localization alone would be regressive and unable to survive centralist onslaughts that are already firmly in place. Mutual coordination through commonality and universality, however, assumes a large enough mass that can effectively counterbalance groupthink.

Partitioning society between individual and groupthink populations: the role of the expert.

Let me divide worldviews between personal validation, versus the blind following of groupthink. On the one side, the individual decides that he/she possesses enough biological capability to judge complex events and structures in the world; on the other side, an individual relegates the ability to judge to some expert. This second alternative is influenced by the method introduced by science, where people do not usually possess the scientific training that would enable them to make scientific judgments. Science requires specialization, and its applications in fields such as engineering, medicine, etc. also define domains of specialization. The ordinary citizen simply does not have the training to match experts in those fields. Even in economics, something as necessary as tax-return preparation divides individuals who can accomplish it on their own from those for whom the task is too complex, and requires paying a tax expert to do it for them.

The authority of the expert, however, is commandeered by those persons intent on building a power structure. With religion in its most oppressive forms, an individual is told what to think. In the field of art, architecture, and urbanism, with which I am involved, an expert class of enormous extent and power has grown and now dictates group opinion about what is right and wrong. Here we have a problem in that much of contemporary artistic endeavor is felt (i.e. perceived biologically, psychologically, and viscerally) to be noxious and damaging to our psyche. This direct impression contradicts what the experts are saying, as it contradicts what a vast economic infrastructure — consisting of contemporary art museums, heavy and expensive picture books, courses in our universities, publications by world-famous critics, international shows and competitions, prestigious awards and prizes — uniformly supports.

The other, equally negative face of this phenomenon involves condemnation of what the present artistic/architectural elite does not like (because it reminds us of the past). What naturally appeals to a person on the basis of evolved human physiology is very frequently dismissed as “kitsch” and is harshly condemned as a sign of moral degeneracy and backwardness. I’m sorry to say that much of the world’s traditional art, architecture, and urbanism falls into this category of forms condemned by an immensely powerful establishment. We therefore face a global phenomenon of cognitive dissonance: what we feel is right is supposed to be wrong according to authority, and what we feel is wrong is supposed to be right.

So who is justified, the expert supported by a trillion-dollar industry centered in the world’s Art Capitals, or the folks who buy gaudy souvenirs and paint their house interiors and exteriors with bright colors? Who can we safely believe? I claim that we should trust our own biological instincts above all else, not simply for any political reason that should automatically side with the common person out of egalitarianism, but as evidenced by our own evolution. Much of the research supporting my claims is very recent and is contained, but is not limited to, the new discipline of Biophilia. Science is coming to bear, not on the side of the expert established through hegemony, but on the side of the ordinary human being. The problem is that this clarification comes several decades too late, only after a monolithic power structure has built itself up. The power the establishment wields is enough to silence scientific results.

As is clear from medicine and technology, experts are absolutely necessary in our society, yet to be useful they must be guides and helpers. Experts have to be oriented towards the interests of the citizens and civil society to help make sure that society makes the right decisions. We need experts who are conversant with the pattern approach outlined below, to derive, document, and help society in implementing patterns. The problem is how to recognize an expert with society’s interest in mind, and to distinguish him/her from someone who offers either faulty advice or a deliberately biased point of view that promotes a special interest or ideology. This is an unanswered question, and has been so throughout our history.

Patterns check the validity of expert opinion.

I suggest a method of checking the credentials of any expert who offers advice on architecture and urbanism. Since the built environment touches human life in an immediate and visceral sense, we can apply the Pattern method. A Pattern as derived by Christopher Alexander is a discovered solution that works, repeated throughout human society and in different ages and cultures, and found in totally distinct cultural contexts. For example, the Pattern “Light on two sides of every room” is found in the most pleasant rooms all over the world independently of any other factor. Alexander and his colleagues catalogued 253 such discovered patterns in 1977, and provided scientific explanations for about half of them. For the rest, they simply stated them based upon their phenomenological recurrence.

An architectural and urban pattern combines geometry with biological and social function: i.e. it combines human behavior, movement, health, subconscious physiological response, and life with a fairly general geometrical condition that encompasses an infinite number of specific situations. The patterns apply to create new configurations that share an essential basis but which can all be distinct in their details. In this way, a pattern is not a rigid template to copy every time, but rather an applicable template that generates new solutions every time. (The Appendix to this essay reprints a review of Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” that I wrote for

While Alexander’s patterns are extremely useful in empowering groups of people to design and build their own living environment, the idea of pattern languages is more powerful still. It is possible to undertake a program of “pattern mining”, whereby a society works to discover socio-geometric patterns in architecture and urbanism, which it then documents for posterity. The patterns can be used whenever needed to partially guarantee a more human environment. We have already seen the patterns movement in software, where Alexander’s ideas have been applied to derive catalogues of software patterns; patterns of software development; patterns of information technology; etc. Just as in architecture and urbanism, software patterns are solutions that can be re-used indefinitely.

The value of what an expert is offering can be checked against evolved patterns documented by a society. If the expert’s proposals differ too radically from the patterns, then people should be extremely cautious in adopting guidelines that might totally change their societal structure. There is an inherent conservatism in the patterns, which can save a society from disastrous re-orientations that erase what was good in their past and present. Change for the good could come fairly quickly, but within a pattern language change has to be evolved, and it very rarely offers a complete break with the past. People are extremely eager to jettison old practices and embrace the promise of the new, with its utopian visions of solving all problems with one radical stroke. We know, however, that this never works as promised. In implementing a complete break with architectural and urban patterns, our society (since the 1920s) has not succeeded in generating living environments and a human-scale urban fabric. We are now seeing a return to past typologies such as pedestrian city centers, a move away from gigantism, restricting exclusively high-speed traffic, abandoning monofunctional zoning in cities, encouraging mixed-use urbanism, implementing urban densification on the human scale, etc. All of these are very hopeful signs of progress towards a new type of living city that re-uses older traditional solutions in a contemporary context. We should encourage the many trends and initiatives that go in a positive direction of enhancing quality of life. Within this urban movement there are also anti-urban solutions that the ordinary citizen confuses with genuine solutions. Again, the method used to distinguish between a good and a harmful solution is by determining how far it connects to known patterns.

One last word on anti-patterns. Just because a typology has been used for some time does not make it a pattern. Some errors are seductive. We see examples of anti-patterns that were wrong to begin with, and remain wrong in every subsequent application. Anti-patterns are more often studied in software: they have been catalogued for the benefit of software engineers who can thus identify and avoid adopting an anti-pattern (and thus compromise their project). In architecture and urbanism, certain typologies on widely different scales have persisted since the 1920s even though they generate malaise in human users. One of these is the isolated glass-and-steel skyscraper sitting in a parking lot, lawn, or hard plaza. Any society that drives itself to extinction or self-destruction is following some form of tradition that has tragically incorporated anti-patterns. This shift is marked by the transition into a groupthink society.

P2P and pattern thinking.

P2P principles play a key role in two distinct stages of the pattern approach to society and architecture. First, a pattern is evolved through collective action by many individuals and over many generations. Building a useful and pleasant environment was the central aim of architecture for all generations previous to our own, thus typologies and innovations tended to evolve into the most life-enhancing solutions, limited only by the constraints of available technology and materials. A pattern is therefore the result of collective actions, with many people contributing to its development. Patterns were copied and adapted to different circumstances: the universally applicable ones were used unaltered, whereas patterns dependent upon specific situations were adapted to fit.

Second, using pattern languages to design and build our environment depends upon the P2P ethic. Design information is open to all, and patterns encourage collaborative design and building. Ever since Alexander’s book appeared in 1977, architectural patterns have spread informally, primarily through peer-to-peer networks outside formal architecture practice and academia. Readers who have gone through architecture school know that Pattern Language is not taught as a standard part of the curriculum. The reason is that the empowering aspect of pattern languages contradicts the central message of contemporary fashionable architecture: the architect as a lone genius who possesses secret (i.e. proprietary) knowledge about design, which can never be shared with ordinary people. Even the architect’s clients are supposed to be ignorant, and have to pay exorbitant sums of money for an “original” architectural creation they themselves can never understand.

In sharp contrast to this “genius” mentality fostering artificial scarcity, people working with patterns begin with the assumption that anyone can understand how to design and build rooms, houses, urban spaces, and cities. All they need is some technical information, a few rules of what not to do, and those rules are derived from past practice (and learning from past mistakes). Design patterns are meant to be shared freely. The larger the project, the more we need technical assistance, but this has to do with technology and implementation, not with the design itself. Alexander has always emphasized that societies used their collective intelligence to build during every period of human history in the past, and only stopped doing so in the mid-20C.

Therefore, even as pattern thinking should be correctly interpreted as a continuation with older traditional design methods, it does not continue the system now in place in the wealthy countries. There exists a sharp distinction between the old (20C industrialized and globalized top-down urbanism) and the new (P2P design by empowered individuals helping each other). Informal settlements comprising a large percentage of what is built today will experience a smooth transition as P2P and pattern methods can drastically improve their quality. Unsustainable fantasies of high technology imposed upon a country by a global financial elite have found their natural and physical limits, however. There can be no continuation because those represent such a radical negation of human biology and sensibility that they are impervious to adaptation.

Business implementations of the model I am describing all define a commons with market value added on top of the free resource. Assuming that a pattern language for design is available (people use Alexander’s patterns plus a repertoire of patterns that they have themselves developed), an individual or community can hire someone with experience in implementing the patterns to help save time and costly mistakes. The design information is mostly free, and the client pays for expert advice. The New Urbanist Smart Code, which grew out of patterns, is available free online. Many New Urbanists offer their services to calibrate (i.e. adjust the code to local circumstances) and to help in its implementation. That is how they make their money. Again, the design resource is free and the profit comes from the added market value. I should mention that the architectural establishment slanders New Urbanism by labeling it as only for the wealthy; however, my New Urbanist friends and I have already applied those ideas to help in building and upgrading informal settlements and social housing.

Distinction between individual/groupthink and Left/Right partitions.

The individual/groupthink partition defines a distinct political divide from the old Left/Right partition. I will look for overlaps and contradictions. Justifying the feelings of common people against an elitist society that manipulates the media is a classic responsibility of the political Left. But this same idea is just another side of the insistence of the political Right that the individual should have the ability to decide for him/herself, and not be bullied into accepting a generic world imposed by the majority society which could represent the lowest common denominator. In this crucial point of individualism, the Left and Right partially intersect.

It is also important to point out how both Right and Left have historically encouraged the partition as I have just defined it. The Right is often enamored with expensive things and the latest fashions, and this consumerist urge is precisely what drives inhuman art, architecture, and urbanism. Experts arise within, and are promoted by the unstoppable engine of global consumerism, initially very much a phenomenon of the Right. There is a lot of money to be made from promoting useless and even noxious products, whether they be art objects, fashionable-looking buildings, or entire new cities designed by a “star” architect (who may in fact have absolutely no grasp of the principles of urbanism). The media are controlled by the market, which itself exists in a self-feeding cycle within the global consumerist engine. The Left is not blameless, however. For much of its history, it has fallen prey to an ideology that falsely couples liberation and progress to abstract images of a future modernity, even long after such images turn out to be inhuman and dysfunctional in application. Well-meaning progressives bought into the promise of mass-production, especially its more noxious (and unnecessary) aspect emphasizing the machine aesthetic. We are therefore still wedded to utopian architectural and urban typologies of the 1920s, promised at that time to be liberating for the oppressed working class, and since implemented by both democratic and totalitarian governments of both Left and Right. Every application has been a dismal failure, yet our universities continue to teach the “socially liberating” ideal of the Bauhaus aesthetic as it applies to lamps, windows, buildings, and entire cities.

The Left was initially complicit in the sins of modernity, with which it shared the same presuppositions. It blindly believed in abstract social progress and social engineering from above. Individuals on the Left, however, soon responded with strong critiques of this narrow image-based or ideology-based modernity as it led to a centralist dynamic that undid individual freedoms and made individual input redundant. As Bauwens cogently proposes, the healthy solution envisions the state as a mere vehicle for coexistence: a partner and servant of civil society, rather than the master of the strategy of social change. The problem is to influence the state itself to assume this role. Bauwens warns against the extreme anti-statist reaction of libertarians and instead encourages collaboration among the disparate threads that create a civil society.

Traditional architecture and urbanism tend to be condemned by some of the creators of the groupthink society, often in the harshest possible terms. Applying negative meme encapsulation, the globally-controlled media terrorize society with the warning that any traditional-looking major building such as a public building, theater, school, museum, or organization headquarters, and historical-looking urban fabric, are an immediate threat to liberty and even to technological progress. The majority of people buy that lie because of media conditioning. The Left has been unfortunately complicit in condemning traditional architecture and urbanism because of a tragic misinterpretation that conflates social forces with abstract images. At the same time, however, unsustainable suburban sprawl that drove the recent financial collapse is based upon building great numbers of isolated houses and shopping malls that look very traditional. Here, the most superficial images of tradition are abused to sell a defective and shoddily-built product to the gullible masses who deep down yearn for some more traditional connection to their world. Urbanism that isolates people, destroys agricultural land, and wastes resources has become a corollary of the junk food industry, driven as it is by images and advertizing. Therefore, despite what seems to be a traditional movement in mass-produced residences, this is really an image covering up an unsustainable and energy-wasting despoliation of the natural environment.

P2P principles reinforce the self-organizing society.

P2P practices and ideas help to balance out the tension between the two parts in the individual/unthinking partition of society. Readers will immediately offer that improved education would prevent ordinary, intelligent people from following obviously restrictive and oppressive ideologies. People reason for themselves. And yet, we see the same phenomenon repeating throughout history, where pseudo-religious cults and extremist political movements drag entire nations along in a nihilistic frenzy. Many classic cases involved societies with a highly-educated citizenry. Clearly, education is not enough to combat the phenomenon of brainwashing, especially as today, a major sector of Western economy (e.g. advertising and political campaigns) is devoted to it.

P2P practices, on the other hand, have both the correct appeal and the right message to accomplish the job. Since its inception in the slightly subversive world of open software, P2P has caught on with those who wish to sidestep a monolithic power establishment. Education in the P2P arena offers the perception that its content lies outside, and is thus potentially far more valuable, than information pumped through the regular channels by an establishment interested primarily in controlling the minds of citizens. While this may be an extreme view, it nevertheless concords with the open-source movement that liberates the tools of Information and Communications Technologies so that the rest of the world outside the global elite can profit from them.

The basis for P2P philosophy requires INDIVIDUALS helping each other, and its idealization is achieved when this multiple connectivity finally creates a “collective intelligence”. I hold the view that this type of collective thinking process is very different from the psychology of crowds that occurs when masses of people are driven by an ideology and groupthink. As previously mentioned, the fierce individualism of conservative thought combines to generate a higher level of group intelligence that is participatory rather than simply blindly reinforcing a single message. This collective intelligence among peers hopefully possesses a vastly improved analytical skill, which permits it to analyze social manipulation such as that practiced by the mass media. P2P society keeps its components as individuals, whereas consumerist society converts them into one unthinking mass.

Patterns represent the workings of collective intelligence over several generations to evolve socio-geometrical solutions. Assuming that a pattern has been accurately documented (discovered and not invented), it stands for a far greater authority than current architectural fashion. A style that is the idea of a single architect, although it may be copied by others, is in fact popular because a powerful establishment usually supports it. When there is conflict between architectural patterns and an individual architect, paradoxically, the pattern is the one corresponding to free aggregate individual thought because it is validated in P2P terms. By contrast, the ideas of a famous architect lack collective validation, and are supported instead by groupthink abetted by the controlled global media.

Urbanism among the groupthink society.

Beginning in the 1920s, the sleek, mechanical images of a new future defined a built environment made of glass curtain walls, steel frames, reinforced concrete, and the isolated freestanding high-rise building. Neither the Left nor the Right questioned these typologies, as massive construction put up apartment blocks and office towers from Magnitogorsk, to Detroit, to Teheran. These stubbornly neat geometrical visions contrasted with owner-built housing that is more tailored to human sensibilities, though most often constructed with very poor materials. Self-built settlements are uniformly condemned as not conforming to the accepted image of progress (in truth that of reformist 1920’s Europe). Governments of every political orientation make it their determined objective to bulldoze informal cities and replace them with neat-looking but inhuman tower blocks. This is one of the most serious actions against P2P urbanism, since participatory building occurs only when it is supported by local help and connectivity, and never by implementation from above.

The philosophical Right offers a bulwark against this propaganda, because it continues to value older, traditional forms. Perhaps valid for a subset of the right reasons, conservatives maintain an appreciation of traditional things, and do not rush to dispose of everything old just because a political ideology declares that such a sacrifice is necessary for progress. Conservatives are more immune to this urge to jettison all that has evolved in our past; they maintain the belief that the past is connected to the living present and cannot simply be thrown away. Here, however, we run into the collusion of the economic Right with power (with identical results to the collusion of the Left with power): nothing is sacred if it poses an obstacle to making a vast profit. It is not necessary to convince those on the Right of the sacred value of preserving the great human achievements of the past, but less easy to underscore the value of folk art and architecture and irregular urbanism. Those are too closely tied to the poor, and so do not often gain adequate support from the Right. And yet, the salvation of the built environment requires for the Right to accept and embrace the needs of human beings from all classes. “High” and “folk” art and architecture meet, interact, and reinforce each other, driven by bottom-up forces playing out in the framework of patterns, while all of this is driven by the upswell of human sentiment. When art is rooted in humanity rather than intellect, it can better resist the development of sick and sadistic expressions that have become fashionable and highly marketable in recent decades.

World production of vernacular art, architecture, and urbanism tends to come from those on the Left, simply because they are less well off. But the problem here is that these same people aspire to values instilled in their minds by the globally-controlled media, and thus refuse to value what they themselves produce. They are easily manipulated in a global game of unsustainable consumerism that profits only the multinationals. The goal of consumerism is to undervalue what can be produced easily in a P2P society, and to create a dependence upon a proprietary product. Therefore, the world today has almost entirely been taken over by an elite that is converting it into the groupthink society, driving global consumerism and the economic engine that supplies it. Most people have no qualms about the massive indoctrination that is necessary to maintain the global consumerist society. At the same time, however, we are wasting the earth’s resources.

The P2P cityscape utilizes our latest technology.

Lest a reader get the wrong impression that I am promoting a return to the 18C city and the abandonment of all technological progress, let me clear things up. World cities before the 20C were unhealthy places, and most remain so still. We delude ourselves by limiting our attention to small portions of wealthy cities in the Western World, yet a large portion of humanity lives under terrible sanitary conditions. Fortunately, we now possess the technological resources to make a tremendous advancement that would enhance the quality of life for a major part of the world’s urban population. For example, the Grameen Bank has lifted millions out of poverty by giving out a very large number of very small loans. Technological advances such as portable telephones and low-cost local power generation have solved problems that plagued humanity for millennia. The latest technological advances can be applied in a bottom-up fashion to benefit individuals. This small-scale approach helps much more than does technological gigantism, which normally ignores the individual.

What I am proposing is that we follow architectural and urban patterns, that we respect the geometry of the living city (i.e. traditional human-scaled urban geometry), and not try to replace living human fabric with utopian images of a shiny future. Instead, use a P2P approach to upgrade our cities, driven by crowdsourcing and freely-shared information on how human beings can live better. Useful expert advice does not come from the architecture critic who proposes replacing owner-built urban fabric by giant skyscrapers built out of imported glass and steel. We should instead accept advice on how to apply patterns and small-scale technology to fix what we have. “Official” information sources tend to be mouthpieces of very powerful political and economic interests, and those have the most to gain from the large-scale approach that ignores human scale.

The key aspect of P2P society is diffuse non-expert public involvement. P2P can play a crucial role to open people’s eyes, heretofore constrained (either by custom or by circumstance) to follow expert advice that may be destructive. Now as never before so many people have access to essential information, including patterns, that they can use to change their world into something better for all. While Alexander’s patterns are not yet available free online, all it takes is one person familiar with the Pattern Language to bring one copy of the book into a community and to help plan their future. A few volunteers can educate people around the globe on the value of thinking about patterns, using the internet as the distribution medium. The same is true for bottom-up help when an honest NGO comes to install local power sources and infrastructure using available labor and materials.

Protecting the natural resources of the world: love and ownership of the commons.

I would like to explore the foundations of a P2P approach connecting to and eventually protecting our world. First and foremost, the basic concept of the commons needs to be established by physicality, not ideology. In my experience with urban forms and spaces, people do not identify with a particular place unless they feel they own it in some way. For that to occur, they must take emotional ownership. I believe that this is possible only if there is a shared feeling of love for the physical object, and even then only when this feeling is quite intense. If we love something, we care to preserve it. We can love something that is not exclusively ours, and then it becomes a common good. Much of the time, we love something that we have participated personally in creating. Consider the urban square of a village built by its inhabitants, the small church or temple in a village also built by its inhabitants, the great cathedral that was nevertheless the common endeavor of the people in a city for over a century. In all these cases, the users “own” the structure because they helped to create it, and they love it for the same reason. They will protect it against damage and destruction because they connect to it emotionally, psychologically, and viscerally.

We don’t love the modern church designed by a “name” architect because it is not part of us; it is alien. Its geometry and surfaces contradict its claim of being sacred through an unmistakable visceral message that triggers a negative physiological response in our bodies. It has been sold to us by a corrupt media through indoctrination, in a political power game where a servile group is proud to execute the wishes of the dominant elite. In the same way, we don’t love the hard alien plaza designed by another “name” architect, nor the giant and absurd abstract sculpture that occupies and spoils what could have been a very nice urban space. None of these objects can ever become part of the commons, despite the enormous media expense trying to convince us of their worth in ideological terms based upon an ephemeral fashion. Shahed Khan poses the disturbing question of whether the society that collaborates to collectively build a Mosque or Cathedral is driven by ideology and groupthink. The people are definitely motivated by a shared belief, and the resulting structure is a common good to be enjoyed by members of the majority society. I believe that the end result is one of love: a worshipper loves his/her temple, and even more so if he/she has helped to build it. The glorious religious structures throughout our history give an incredibly intense biophilic feedback that nourishes the user. Someone from another religion experiences this positive biophilic effect (Christians visiting a 15C Mosque or Hindu temple are moved emotionally; Muslims and Hindus visiting a Medieval Cathedral are similarly moved; everyone visiting the Parthenon, etc.). Groupthink, by contrast, is most often associated with hate, not love. It polarizes one group of people against another, it denigrates and condemns the other’s work by denying the love that went into producing it, and by denying the commonality all human beings have for the things they love even as those things may differ. Groupthink channels human forces towards destruction.

As Bauwens reminds us, the commons can also be virtual, such as an online community that shares a commonly-created commons of software or design depository. A prime candidate for such a commons would be an online Pattern Language. The incredible growth of social networks testifies to the human need to connect, and to the feeling of belonging to each other and to a “meeting place” that is easy to get to (and which enables the interpersonal meetings to take place). An online website/forum is an example of a successful and concrete collective infrastructure.

Another dimension of love and ownership develops over time, after several generations have experienced connection to a particular place or building. Our ancestors could have built it, so ownership and love of that place or building runs in our family. Traditional societies value the continuity of connection that establishes an indirect link with our ancestors, and the same link continues into the future to include our descendants. Conservatives place a high value on this continuity that links generations of people across time through the intermediary of particular shared places. Unfortunately, here the Left is less helpful because of its urge to undo past society so as to move forward towards real or imagined progress. When the past is seen as a barrier to emancipation and advancement, there is little to do to convince a society of the value of preserving at least some continuity.

The Left/Right divide dissolves in a dangerous manner when the groupthink society is brainwashed into a fanatical hatred of its own past. In a phenomenon that is now referred to as Ecophobia, both Left and Right have turned against their built heritage and unthinkingly embrace images of buildings that are totally inhuman. The simple necessity of demolition in historic city centers in order to erect these new structures has spawned a propaganda war against historical and traditional built form, with the aim of replacing them. All the techniques developed in the advertising industry are applied in a clever manner to promote alien images of new buildings, while at the same time the complementary techniques of negative meme encapsulation, developed in the military rather than in Madison Avenue, are applied to condemn historical and vernacular architecture and urbanism. An “outdated” geometry is marked for elimination, and the people are convinced by the media of the necessity of introducing as rapidly as possible the new “signs of progress” that are the products of the global architectural elite.

Religion, cults, and the Left/Right polarity.

Religion shapes our worldview, and it can be for the better or worse. Pretending that this doesn’t occur only opens up society to be taken over by a substitute religion. In the past, traditional religions incorporated and supported groups of evolved patterns and thus provided positive reinforcement. Substitute religions impose their own ideology and images: for example, the sleek inhuman visions of machine modernity now almost universally worshipped by people around the world. The ubiquitous images of industrial progress have assumed the status of religious idols. Every other aspect of the establishment’s power base is criticized — with a groundswell movement arising from the bottom up and fed by P2P information exchange — except for architecture and urbanism. Religious validation of inhuman architecture and urban spaces as dogma precludes a spontaneous reaction against them in our western-based networked society. The developing world, where large sections of society are much more traditionally religious than in the wealthy western nations, reacts in the opposite manner. Here, the polarity between traditional/contemporary architecture and urbanism is interpreted in predominantly religious terms. The West still has not understood this phenomenon, dismissing it thus far simply as economic and political hostility. I believe that dramatic and sharply conflicting forces are acting out here: western industrial forms so eagerly accepted by the groupthink society are correctly interpreted by people rooted in a traditional religion as a threat to their traditional worldview. The people react against this western intrusion, sometimes violently. P2P society can recognize the forces behind this reaction, and offer more appropriate alternatives consistent with human-scale urbanism that respects traditional society.

The basis for P2P society is fundamentally sounder than what we have right now, yet we still require a rapprochement on the issue of religion (referring to both traditional beliefs and the cult of industrial images) as a prerequisite for adopting patterns and rejecting propaganda. The Left wants emancipation, which includes emancipation from cultural patterns that are seen as impositions on the sovereignty of the individual and the enjoyment of the eternal present. Authoritative cultural patterns are of course at odds with the Enlightenment rationality. The establishment has used individualism, materialism, democracy, and progress through science and technology to destroy every human link to transcendence. These worthy ideals of the Enlightenment were abused by both Left and Right to create a power base for the benefit of the few.

To give cultural patterns the weight they need to stand up to opposition and perform their function, patterns have to be seen as backed by some principle that transcends particular and ephemeral human goals, and is at least as authoritative as experts and advertising images. Traditional societies validated their evolved and derived patterns by making them sacred, so that religion served this useful function of protecting patterns essential to a healthy emotional life. We will have to provide a novel, science-based mechanism for linking patterns to some order higher than the everyday. The inception of a P2P society based upon free thought resides in liberating access to useful information such as Alexander’s patterns. Without some sort of commonly-accepted support, however, evolved patterns become prey to ideologies and images that degrade humanity. A society can fall under the spell of a substitute religion that uses brilliant slogans to recruit converts and to keep the faithful in line as unthinking consumers of material and ideological junk.

P2P self-organization is especially valuable as a form of resistance to the real root of political problems: egotism, hedonism, corruption, nihilism evolving into sadism in the arts and architecture, etc. Free individual decision instead of groupthink helps establish desirable social functioning and counters a tendency towards extreme centralization. Patterns that enable individuals to deal with their lives in satisfying ways without having some expert or merchandiser tell them what to do are not just external pieces of information they can get off the web. Cultural patterns define the reality of things for individuals and help them become the kind of person they are: socio-geometric patterns shape people’s worldview and consequently their very place in the world.

Scales that transcend the nation state.

Some questions go far beyond the topic of this essay, and will have to be developed elsewhere. P2P society transcends the nation state, freely crossing national boundaries, since its members share more with like-minded citizens of another country than with the power establishment of their own country. P2P does not have a national border. The original dream of the Left in uniting the working classes of the world here takes on a different meaning, but one that could be equally threatening to notions of national sovereignty. Conservatives need not be alarmed, however, because P2P empowers individuals towards a better quality of life inside their own country and within their own society harmoniously, and is not directed towards world revolution. The only revolution concerns itself with liberating access to useful information.

The basic idea of P2P and people helping themselves and each other encourages co-existence among different groups that would otherwise be competing for ideological reasons, and for resources made artificially scarce by central greed and mismanagement. A P2P worldview therefore helps the situation of minorities within a majority society. At the same time, if people choose to follow the conservative/progressive alliance that I’m proposing here, national identity becomes a positive factor. Getting away from the groupthink nationalism that drives countries to aggression against each other, recognizing national cultural achievements — the opposite of the homogenization promoted by the global media — is a sustaining source of national pride. Much of the fabric of national pride has been erased by globalization that replaces local achievements with nondescript and generic commercial products.

Shahed Khan and Agatino Rizzo raise the point that the individual/groupthink dichotomy fails to bring minority groups into the debate. It is true that a dominant group exercises hegemony over other groups in a society, and that dominance is exacerbated in a groupthink mentality. Nevertheless, I believe that a P2P approach, by trying to improve the quality of life through cooperation, offers much better prospects for a positive form of society that is inclusive and which can celebrate diversity. We see the successful comingling in multicultural societies all around the world whenever a society values all factors leading to improving the quality of life through biological feedback.

Conclusion: towards a new alliance.

I hope to have helped make clear part of what is required for a P2P society. Doubtless, we are only at the beginning of thinking about this effort, making plans for the first implementations, and there is much more that will need to evolve and develop. But we can summarize the first steps to take towards this goal. My discussion has been ranging between urbanism and politics, and certainly does not include the other significant components that are crucial for a P2P restructuring of institutions into a self-organizing society.

The conclusion is obvious: a consumerist frenzy driven by a massively global economic-political establishment is eating up the earth’s resources. In order to function, it had to create a groupthink society, and it continues to do so through its absolute control of the global media. This much is immediately grasped by part of the Left, which eagerly embraces P2P ideas because it sees in them an alignment with its own anti-establishment ideals. Nevertheless, while these points are necessary they are not sufficient to develop a new P2P society.

The other component of P2P is the re-utilization of patterns of geometry, of socio-economic actions, of tradition, which have worked in the past. Most (though certainly not all) of these traditional patterns are intrinsically sustainable because they arose out of necessity, and apply on the human scale. Here we are in the traditional domain of the Right. The Right preserves the essential respect of traditions by making them sacred. The cultural baggage of conservatives includes not only an essential understanding of what is worth saving, but also the worldview that gives an individual the strength of character to oppose the massive brainwashing that is converting the world into a groupthink population. The Left might be surprised to realize that it needs essential tools from the Right in order to complete the basic requirements for a P2P society.

We can profitably argue the viewpoint that the world has been divided according to a new partitioning, which is non-political. The old Left/Right partitioning is not very useful in implementing a new P2P society. Any component of either side of the old political divide that supports P2P can and should be incorporated into a new worldview. As soon as the world realizes this, it will become easier to cross over the old political divide in order to implement new ideas towards a sustainable society.


Let me mention that my principal influences are Christopher Alexander, Michel Bauwens, and Roger Scruton. I am most grateful for constructive criticism on earlier drafts of this essay by Michel Bauwens, James Kalb, Shahed Khan, Ryan Lanham, Agatino Rizzo, Ray Sawhill, and Stefano Serafini. I have endeavored to utilize all of their comments.


  • Christopher Alexander, S. Ishikawa, M. Silverstein, M. Jacobson, I. Fiksdahl-King & S. Angel (1977) A Pattern Language, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen & Martin Mador, Editors (2008) Biophilic Design: the Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, John Wiley, New York, 2008. My contribution is Chapter 5 co-authored with Kenneth Masden: “Neuroscience, the Natural Environment, and Building Design”, pages 59-83.
  • Nikos A. Salingaros (2000) “The Structure of Pattern Languages”, Architectural Research Quarterly, 4, pages 149-161. Reprinted as Chapter 8 of Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland, 2005.


My review of Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” for was originally published online in 1998. It then mysteriously disappeared from the Amazon site (something I have never seen with other book reviews). I had to re-load it in 2007.

“One of the great books of the century. Alexander tried to show that architecture connects people to their surroundings in an infinite number of ways, most of which are subconscious. For this reason, it was important to discover what works; what feels pleasant; what is psychologically nourishing; what attracts rather than repels. These solutions, found in much of vernacular architecture, were abstracted and synthesized into the Pattern Language about 20 years ago. Unfortunately, although he did not say it then, it was obvious that contemporary architecture was pursuing design goals that are almost the opposite of what was discovered in the pattern language. For this reason, anyone could immediately see that Alexander’s findings invalidated most of what practicing architects were doing at that time. The Pattern Language was identified as a serious threat to the architectural community. It was consequently suppressed. Attacking it in public would only give it more publicity, so it was carefully and off-handedly dismissed as irrelevant in architecture schools, professional conferences and publications.

Now, 20 years later, computer scientists have discovered that the connections underlying the Pattern Language are indeed universal, as Alexander had originally claimed. His work has achieved the highest esteem in computer science. Alexander himself has spent the last twenty years in providing scientific support for his findings, in a way that silences all criticism. He published this in the four-volume work entitled The Nature of Order. His new results draw support from complexity theory, fractals, neural networks, and many other disciplines on the cutting edge of science. After the publication of this new work, our civilization has to seriously question why it has ignored the Pattern Language for so long, and to face the blame for the damage that it has done to our cities, neighborhoods, buildings, and psyche by doing so.”