Peer Production at the P2P Foundation
= interview of Michel Bauwens by Mayssam Daboul
Interview of Mr. Michael Bauwens - founder P2P Foundation - by Mayssam Daboul.
Institution: P2P Foundation - https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Main_Page
Q: Would you please explain to us the nature of your business model.
Our central activity as I see it is to create a knowledge commons. So the way we see ourselves is we peer produce knowledge about peer production.
Q: Can you give us an example, please?
Well, we have a wiki in which I record everything I see that is related to peer to peer and the commons. So by peer to peer, we mean the relational Dynamics of open contribution and with Commons, we mean sharing resources like in open source. Everything that works that way is interesting to us in every field. So we have a specialized perspective that covers all domains arts: culture, business, politics from our perspective.
Q: Is the specialized perspective sharing information in a peer-to-peer fashion?
Not just sharing information, so I use a relational grammar from Alan page Fisk and it's a very big sociological book called: “The structure of social life”, and it says that humanity allocates resources exchange in four ways. This is true for immaterial and material resources. The first one and that's the original one he calls it “communal shareholding” and that is when a person can contribute to some kind of totality and he benefits from the totality. What we say is that the internet scales up this particular motion exchange so it used to be very local very territorially based. You know the Dunbar number, ( is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person), within 150 local groups. Today if you look at Linux there are tens of thousands of people working, but the average team is four. So we have created a technological capacity to globalize communal shareholding which didn't exist before. This is what we see as the basic innovation of the internet.
The second one is called “authority ranking”. Imagine you're living in small tribes and u can solve conflicts just by talking to people because you know everybody, everybody is your family, uncles or aunts. Let's say that there is an ecological catastrophe and the only way to survive is to invade another tribe. At that moment you are in a position of domination, basically, there's a new rule that says: ok I'll protect you but you're better off with us because we can scale up, we can become bigger, we can become stronger. So authority ranking is basically any mode off allocation where people get something according to their ranks. Typically feudal relationship: the duke, the Lord, the count, the Barron and according to your position in society you get more or less. Which is a typical hierarchical mode off allocation? Then you have the market. And also what I forgot to say “the gift” is actually the second one he calls it “equality matching”. I need to explain this because it is sometimes confused with what is happening on the internet. In an equality matching type of society which is complex tribal societies, so communal shareholding is small communal family bands. Once you get complex federation of tribes, basically you have peace by giving. Native Indian Americans call a “Potlatch”, where all tribes are invited, everybody brings resources and gifts. So basically it's a communal competition around gifts. I give you something and through my giving, I am superior to you because now you owe me something. so you are going to be motivated to give me something back to re-establishing equality in the relationship. so the gift economy creates social relations in these tribal societies. So you have four basically. We studied one of them which we believe is at the core of the contributory economy so I give something to the totality. For example, I am a Linux programmer, I give the free code to the community and therefore I can benefit from the totality of Linux. This same person can be paid as a developer for IBM but he is still going to give the code at the same time to Linux and within that Linux sphere, he is going to build up reputation based on his contribution: "he is a good programmer", “he gets it”, “he does a good code”,” he's working hard for us”. But there is no person to person relationship, it's not the gift economy, it's not a market economy and it's not based on authority ranking. We use all this as a framework. So, we have a Commons which is basically a documentary Commons. We're like Wikipedia where Wikipedia has a neutral point of view and they cover everything, we call ourselves “perspecto-pedia”. We are not neutral and recover something from a perspective.
Q: Which is?
So, we look at peer to peer in the Commons as something that we believe is largely positive for Humanity. It's like you live in 15th century Europe and you are a religious Reformer, Lutheran or a Calvinist and you say wow great and now we have the printing press so we can spread out and win over the Catholic Church. So basically that's all we are saying so now we have this extraordinary tool to share up common creation and the sharing economy.
Q: Collecting and sharing of data are at the heart of what you do. Would you say from your experience in a P2P organization that unethical behavior is less prevalent than for example Britannica, who also collects and shares data but does it through contracting employees in a normal market setting?
It's difficult to answer. I would tend to agree that with Tebirius (another interviewee). I'm sure that's theirs a lot of research about this but I am not familiar with it, but people tend to behave very differently when seen vs not seen or in other words visibility. So, for example, you are a very nice guy and you got into your car. You start bitching against everybody because no one can see your behavior. As soon as you get out of the car people are watching you, you become friends. I also want to mention a very important element, that ethical behavior is directly linked to motivation so there is a story that says at once we go into this hierarchical Society, we must win Loose relationships. I am the master, if you do not work for me hard enough, I can punish you. This is the reality of slavery and feudalism. Basically, it wins loose. To be more precise it's like fictional protection so you owe me because I protect you because there are other bad people out there to get you. I must protect you from them or else they will get you so this is why you have to be loyal to your Lord because he controls the army and your life and that is why a farmer in the Middle Ages would give half his production to the lord. So these were subsidiary economies, basically because I am only working because I have to so now I have my own food and now I am only working for the Lord because if I don't I get punished. In the second stage, you have capitalism which now you have an exchange from external bad motivation to external positive motivation. To use a bad word, we can say greed or self-interest
Q: Can we call it the promise of a financial incentive because that is what it is centred on?
Yes, yes, exactly I work I get a salary and with my salary, I can buy food and you can argue that this is an improvement because at least you are going to work in order to live so the motivation is to survive with your family and you can have more than that. For example, career and success. Typically when you look at the surveys you see 1 out of 5 people is self-motivated in that system so in other words if you don't pay them they're all gone and everybody knows in those kinds of conditions people are also behaving very much in terms of: “am I being watched” or “am I going to be punished”. Our job is a bit different because we are in cognitive work and we cannot Sabotage ourselves. It doesn't make sense to say I am going to write a bad article. I am from a working-class family and I used to work in factories when I was young since I was 16, and I can tell you the only thing I could think about is screwing the boss
Q: In our literature review, we studied for length what are the measures the market put within the market setting to reduce unethical behavior. They've tried almost everything: increasing incentives, increasing punishments, control modules, and assessment tools. They were never able to find a framework that reduce unethical behaviour. What I am understanding from you is that the measures themselves that are put to reduce unethical behavior at work or maybe to control employees made the employee focus on more on the incentive?
Yes, yes, that is a very good point. I wanted to tell you about the third stage where peer production comes in. Once you have an open contributory system especially in areas where people are not directly paid for their contribution, then what you get is internal motivation. So here you switch from external motivation whether positive or negative, win-lose or win-win, and you go to a project where you are there because you want to be there so in terms of motivation, and this is extraordinary. So, if we look at Britannica and if we compare Britannica to Wikipedia. Britannica was of high quality and maybe they could pay 2000 people. What they cannot do is compete with the system that has 50000 people.
Q: The large number of volunteers that you mentioned reduced the size off tasks per volunteer. Do you believe that this reduction in task size influences reducing unethical behavior by removing financial expectation or is it unrelated?
No, I am not sure because of look at Amazon Turk, they use a market-based version of task-based work. Are these people going to be more ethical because they are doing small tasks? I don't think so. I think the main Factors in peer production that reduce unethical behavior are openness, transparency, visibility. The fact that you are being watched and that everything is visible to everyone. A system that is very dependent on your reputation. You can see in this case that reputation is a currency
Q: So from your experience, could we say that one of the main reasons a volunteer contributes is the internal motivation of him wanting to add his added value do the total whole? And the fact that he knows that it is an open and visible platform, he won't be able to perform in an unethical manner? Is it because the system forces you to be open and forces you to share all the knowledge and this type of system makes you contribute through a point, that you mentioned, that reputation is a currency in Creative Commons?
There is a study called P2P value and we worked on it some years ago as well. It was a European Project, we looked at 300 peer-to-peer communities and one of the conclusions was that reputation is capital even though you're working for free in these environments. Like many people do they also need to make a living, and they usually make a living in the market. So instead of direct relation, it is an indirect relation with the market but what you get is that you will capitalize on your reputation in the market. I heard from someone working in Google Germany some years ago, that Google when hiring people, the first criteria they to look at is peoples coding in open source platforms. They were looking at good codes in, for example, GitHub and other free open platforms. Then they gathered a list of names and then studied connections or in other words, how well those people were connected to each other. It's only then, in the third stage, that they will ask for the diplomas.
Q: You believe that peer production switched, in its nature from promising people financial incentives to mainly building your reputation as a professional in your industry which leads very much to opening bigger opportunities and rewards?
Q: Yes, this is true, so I am not saying that this is the prime motivation for everyone in it. so here is the difference, if you are in an ordinary market company, you work for money, but if you are lucky you also have an interesting job, On the other hand, if you work for peer production, you have an interesting job, because that's what you want to do and if you are lucky you get paid for it. It's like an inversion of the logic especially since we are shifting from lifetime employment to project-based employment.t I was reading numbers that a 35-year-old American has already 9 jobs on average and I also read that we change jobs 3 times more than the 60s. So, it's important to note that we are changing our culture and we have become more nomadic in our work. It also means that now we have intermediary periods where we don't necessarily go from one job to another, especially for cognitive workers. They're not going to be stressed because of constant work they are going to rest, research, built reputation which becomes part of their portfolio. Today, if you are a programmer you can say I worked for Firefox, Linux and it’s a plus. Otherwise, you will have this big gap in your CV which people distrust in a normal market setting. But if you are clever and describe your engagement in a peer-to-peer project that's a job.
Q: So until now we can deduce that the size of the task and the fact and that the smaller size of tasks reduces the expectation of financial behavior have no effect on reducing unethical behavior. Does many volunteers taking part in a program play any role?
Q: You must understand is that peer production projects are not without control. They are without command but not without control. So, we switched from command and control systems to control systems. We moved from preliminary selection to post-talk Hawk selection. So, if you look at free Open Source projects, you always have maintainers that cannot tell you what to do but they can say no. So, in other words, they protect the integrity of the ecosystem, they can look at your code and say: “no this is not good enough for us”. You are still free to write it if you want but it will not be accepted in the system.
Q: And did the maintainers become maintainers because they invested more time and effort?
Yes, this is the difference, they are not nominated, it's a layered peer-to-peer system just like a guild system. So you have different levels of complexity and at every level, you have equality between the Peers and they will be the ones to accept or refuse a newcomer and the choice of the next maintainer.
Q: If you started a new P2P project and you noticed that the number of volunteers in this project is not as high as you have hoped for, but these few volunteers are willing and able to invest enough time and effort to complete it. Would this project be completed at a high level of quality and with reduced unethical behavior compared to a normal market setting?
Yes, because the reality of a peer to peer project, although it's very big, it's never made off big teams and this has been studied. For example, the average team in Linux is 4 people. So, you have 20000 people doing P2P and they are all coordinating their jobs without top-down hierarchy.
Q: So, in other words, P2P offers the opportunity for many volunteers to play a role. But teams are broken down to a relatively smaller size. And it is in this framework that p2p reduces unethical behavior. And that is all because of the openness, visibility, and transparency. Because the volunteer has the duty to share all his information and in return, he can see and contribute to all parts of the project.
Yes, so you have different levels of control. The first level of control is your peers, the small group. If I get paid to do a job and I have a ****** as a colleague, there's nothing I can do about it. If I am there because of my passion for engagement, nothing will force me to stay with that colleague. So, the possibility of exits is bigger. And there is a man called Albert Hirschmann who writes about “voice and exit”, so there are three options as I remember. First, you have exit forking which is a very big element because it allows you to say no, and the main question in P2P is do I start something new or do I follow something already existing? Voice is the ability to self-express an exit or the ability to walk away when needed.
Q: Can we understand from your explanation that in a normal market setting the threat of the voice and exit where the employee is threatened with his/her job security and or financial reward ultimately force him to keep his job but give him more reasons to behave unethically?
Yes, because your labor contract is essentially a legal contract for subordination. So, the labor contract, by definition, is a contract of subordination. I get my wage in return to listening and obeying to the person that provides me that wage, which is the position of dependency. Which ultimately makes your personal Liberty curtailed. am I going to tell you a certain thing when you are my boss and you could fire me?
Q: So what you are telling us is when an employee in a normal market setting feels unable the voices his/ her concern this would ultimately lead that employee to behave unethically. On the other hand, P2P allows for the freedom to safely voice your opinion without worrying of repercussions
Yes, so if you look at a P2P or open-source mailing lists, you will notice that they are very violent in many ways and that is because they can. Because there is no threat to voicing your opinion in P2P and there is no one telling them that they should shut up
Q: Does that freedom of expression build up a smoother work environment?
If you look at the polarity between the individual and the collective, corporation is an example of a hierarchical Collective entity, and I have worked in a lot of companies. Decision making is centered only at the top level of Executives. So, I am an engineer working for NASA, and I know they are cheating with security. If I say something I get threatened because there is pressure from the management to go faster or any other reason. This happens all the time and creates frustration and unhappiness because you think you know there is a better solution but there is only one way to go which is the way of the upper management. It is a scarcely driven environment because you think there is only so much you can do, you're competing and you have to make the good decision which can ultimately be a negative one because ultimately there is only one decision to follow and everybody should follow that same direction. Open source, on the other hand, is more Darwinist, it's more individual, if I don't agree with a certain solution, I can start my own solution. I can also go as far as creating my own Project and attract people that share my vision. These reasons reduce the motives to behave unethically.