[p2p-research] A 1980s footnote on a p2p precursor (was Building Alliances)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Nov 7 15:54:33 CET 2009

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> Ryan wrote:
>> Innovation theorists so often now turn to Von Hippel at MIT.  I remember
>> reading his book a few years ago and thinking...what is he even talking
>> about?  I don't see where we've moved the ball.
> As for [Eric] von Hippel, before him preciously few people recognized
> the power of social innovation by users, it still seems a pretty
> fundamental contribution for me, especially as he saw it years before
> others started acknowledging it,

Just adding my work as a footnote. :-) That work was explained in part to
another von Hippel (Frank) and grew in part out of his public policy class
at the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School in 1988, though it had earlier roots
like an (unpublished) essay I wrote called "The Vertical Corporation", and
some earlier work, even back to Steve Slaby's class in Princeton on "The
Technological Imperative of the Arms Race" around 1984 or so, and roots even
before that in reading James P. Hogan's writings, like "The Two Faces of

I presented there the idea of a self-replicating non-profit that built a
network of information about sustainability and put it into practice
locally, and also in an application for a MacArthur graduate fellowship to
continue that work, and pretty much everyone thought it was crazy, with no
hope of success. :-) Frank was also concerned it would lead to weapons
proliferation to have distributed manufacturing like I outlined. I had a
Hypercard prototype I built back then of "Stella", too (mostly just a static
demo, and named after an 80 year old Countess I was hanging out with then
who had an interest is solar energy and other sustainable technology).

Example one (from 1988):
1. Various projects at Brown, MIT, Stanford, Bellcore, Xanadu, and Apple
have produced hypertext information management systems. These seem to be the
future of information management. I would like to put such a system on the
IRIS [an early Silicon Graphics Workstation model of which there were many
in a networked classroom lab] so that people at Princeton can use it and
extend it. This should take a year's work, and probably cost around $50,000.
NSF or Apple should fund this. We could put a hypercard compatible system on
IRIS in the case of Apple. ..
10. Beyond these individual tools, we need a good system for allowing
multiple people to work together on a project on the IRIS's (or across
campus). This entails producing workgroup software for managing shared
databases, electronic mail, and other communications and coordination
systems. To get into this will involve at least a year and probably $50,000.
Various electronic mail companies and software houses, as well as major
companies and governmental agencies may be interested in funding various
parts of this. Suggestions are Dupont, Da Vinci Systems, Apple, IBM, DEC,
NASA, and Ford.

See also:
"Jakob Nielsen has pointed out that HyperCard was really only a hypermedia
program since its links started from regions on a card, not text objects;
actual HTML-style text hyperlinks were possible in later versions, but were
awkward to implement and seldom used. Bill Atkinson later lamented that if
he had only realized the power of network-oriented stacks, instead of
focusing on local stacks on a single machine, HyperCard could have become
the first Web browser.[5]"

Example two (from 1990, but representing the earlier ideas, which were in
two documents for that call, "The Self-Replicating Garden" plus an earlier
very different version):
   Using Stella, Sunrise is developing a technological web to allow the
Institute to rely on sustainable technology for 90% of its operations.
Sustainable technology is technology that can be used indefinitely without
harm to the environment and which can be recycled or disposed of without
environmental damage. Every system developed or adapted will be put into
Stella and made public domain for anyone to use. These systems would
eventually include housing, food production, paper use, energy use,
transportation, communications, and computing. Stella would be used to
assess priorities and degrees of sustainability for all the technology the
institute relies on.
  Like any living system, Sunrise will grow over time. Sunrise's growth
strategy will be to replicate itself in other communities. Each institute
will have a Stella system, and the Stella systems will all communicate with
each other to share innovations. In this fashion, Sunrise can help many
communities increase their use of sustainable technology.
   As the institute grows, it will market sustainable technology it has
invented or discovered to the surrounding community on an ability to pay
basis. In addition it will provide consulting to organizations increasing
their sustainability and decreasing their negative impact on the environment.
   When established, the work environment at Sunrise offers the following to
employees and their dependants: food, shelter, energy, tools, work space,
health care, day care, transportation, communication, computation, household
goods, education, a retirement plan, creative companionship, and a small
salary for a few luxuries. While no one at Sunrise will get rich, Sunrise
employees know they and their families will be provided for. The Sunrise
environment is experimental: the employees live with, work with, and test
technology they have discovered and developed. Since all work is in the
public domain, Sunrise employees know they work in service of humanity and
not a specific corporation. Sunrise employees have no fears that some
organization might shelve their ideas and deprive them of rights to use
them. By setting a high degree of self-reliance as a goal, Sunrise helps
assure stability for its employees no matter what happens to the larger
   While not-for-profit, Sunrise still needs money to operate. Sunrise's
money will come from the following areas: 1. Donations 2. Grants 3.
Individual and Corporate Memberships 5. Proceeds from selling sustainable
technology 6. Proceeds from consulting on sustainable technology 7. Proceeds
from workshops and tours 8. Proceeds from selling access to databases [not
from selling the data!]
   On an operating level, Sunrise will strive to utilize volunteers,
exchange services with other non-profits, and supply its needs from the
in-house productivity of its own staff whenever possible. Since Sunrise
provides most of the necessities of its staff and their dependants, salaries
can be low.
   By focusing on developing, testing, and using new methods of production,
Sunrise will acquire over time a physical infrastruture that is an
embodiement of the ideas in Stella. This infrastructure will include machine
tools, housing, a seed bank, breeding stock, energy production facilities,
recycling centers, biological sewage treatment facilities, day care centers,
computer hardware, meeting rooms, vehicles, and so forth. Employees using
this capital along with Stella will be able to extend the capital base at
times without the necessity for large amounts of money. This is possible
through the use of collected energy applied to recycle materials and
manufacture them into needed items that more than make up for the wear and
tear (overhead) involved in creating them.
   This is the fourty year timeline of goals for Sunrise:
1990 - 50 members, computer workstation, greenhouse, 100 items in Stella
1991 - Several staff, ten volunteers, 200 members, several workstations, on
site housing and day care, 1000 items in Stella
1992 - 10,000 items in Stella. On site energy production
1993 - 50 staff on site, 50,000 items in Stella
1995 - 200 staff on 2 sites, 100,000 items in Stella
2001 - 10 institutes, 1 million items in Stella, Desert Institute.
2011 - 30 Institutes, 10 million, Antarctic Institute
2033 - 100 Institutes, 100 million, O'Neill Habitat Institute

I'd say my "evil" plans are ahead of schedule in some ways at this point,
especially if I lay metaphorical claim to all the p2p stuff going on and
Wikipedia and so on. :-) That's mostly just for fun, of course, but with a
tiny kernel of truth in the sense that I was, for a time, part of that
larger social network around Princeton and the political and energy/physics
community, like how the Pointrel system has a relation to WordNet. Related
humor at the end here:

Many people had seeds of ideas, some very few were on fertile soil (like at
CERN or MIT), but those grew, and grew, and grew. Or the seeds were just
better and healthier in some way.

Wikipedia has about three million items in English, and many more in other
languages, so it is close to that prediction/intent/desire of ten million of
items in the public domain (or now, free licenses). But the web itself is so
much more, of course. So, is that timeline above for saving the world from
itself on schedule, or even ahead of schedule? :-)

In Frank von Hippel's class, someone recommended I read "Walden II" by B.F.
Skinner and implied that was what I was talking about (there are some
parallels, especially about sustainable technology), same as Ryan and others
often seem to read coercion into anything about cooperation. Still, the
competitive landscape we have is terribly coercive, as Bob Black points out,
from 1985, so it is hard to get much worse on a hours-spent-under-coercion
... Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have
rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren't free like we
are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no
matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance.
State bureaucrats control even the smaller details of everyday life. The
officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups, public or
private. Either way, dissent and disobedience are punished. Informers report
regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing.
   And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern
workplace. The liberals and conservatives and Libertarians who lament
totalitarianism are phonies and hypocrites. There is more freedom in any
moderately de-Stalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American
workplace. You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office
or factory as you do in a prison or a monastery. In fact, as Foucault and
others have shown, prisons and factories came in at about the same time, and
their operators consciously borrowed from each other's control techniques. A
worker is a part-time slave. ...

Still, I was wondering about those sorts of issues, like how do you deal
with people who want to freeload, and it was very grand (or even grandiose)
in the sense of transforming the world just starting from one seed and a
growing public domain of information related to it, so I can't say they were
entirely wrong.

I've since realized, freeloading just is not a problem:
But what about all the "slackers" who will consume without giving back? The
answer is just, "So what?" Why not have pity on such people who are stuck in
such an embarrassingly juvenile state of mind? My mom, a hard worker,
dreamed of being a slacker in a big house with servants. You know where she
found her dream? A nursing home. :-( So, be careful what you wish for,
slacker wannabees. :-)
   If a few can supply the many, then, so what of the slackers? Who cares?
Why build a whole mythology around slackers? And surprisingly, there may be
less slackers than one might expect, because when you have the freedom to
make things your way, without a "boss", there is often a lot of fun to be
had in making things. Just look at all the kids making free music for the
internet these days. Or people writing web pages. :-)
   Examples like the Israeli Kibbutzim have already shown in the past that
even with hard manual labor, there are always a bunch of schmucks (like
maybe even myself and my wife, or many others already working in non-profits :-)
who are willing to work hard even with apparent slackers in their face.
Sure, Kibbutzim had problems with slackers, but modern automated robotic
technology changes the nature of that situation:
(and without bringing in migrant laborers to exploit and expose to
pesticides). And how hard can it be to sit in your GPS-driven
air-conditioned tractor and listen to free music? Or even make some more
music of your own in between keeping an eye on how the robots are doing?
   This is the world the prospective Princeton student is probably imagining
these days as in their future -- or will be soon. :-) Robot tractors. Free
music. GNU/Linux everywhere. Slackers who only take stuff and don't make
stuff as being "so junior high" or "so nursing home". Essentially, these
kids are imagining (or will soon) a John Lennon "Imagine" sort of world --
with abundance and security for all. With robot tractors able to get higher
yields from less land and less water through precision farming, why fight so
much about the agricultural fields or river water? With nanotech solar
panels and nanotech near-perfect insulation, why fight about the oil fields?

Times change; as I see it, aspects of what I outlined are what is happening,
but in a differently networked way, not connected to a grand plan of a
single self-replicating non-profit (although it is interesting to see what
is being discussed now on this list about connected p2p related research and
social centers). What I outlined was more hierarchical in a way (one
company), but what is happening is a lot more networked and chaordic. And
what is happening is better, at this point. :-)

Some of this is a matter of perspective. :-)

And my whole proposal may seem a little nutty looking back on it, and
certainly over-ambitious, but so was trillions spent on nuclear weapons to
blow us all up, which is what I was responding to.

Anyway, we still have another two years to get that Antarctic P2P Media
Institute up and running, according to that timeline. :-) Could I lay claim
to Arcosanti intellectually as the desert institute? :-) And could I lay
claim to the entire Debian GNU/Linux project as "staff"? Then this
exponential world domination plan would be right on schedule. Even ahead of
schedule. :-) Subject to being a little out of touch with actual reality and
who is in charge of all that in a chaordic way. :-)
   "Dr. Evil catches up on the last couple decades"
"Dr. Evil, if we shift our resources away from evil empires, and towards
Starbucks, we can increase our profits five-fold...
SILENCE! I will not tolerate your insolence!"

Sure, it was grand... And nutty. As Albert Einstein said, "If at first, the
idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."

Anyway, just hoping for a footnote in your book as a related p2p grand plan
that fizzled. :-) Maybe all for the best? :-) Sometimes, we just don't
understand the bigger picture? :-)
   "The Terminator and Jesus"

And, I like the way things are happening now better. It's a lot less
stressful to be a little node in a network than trying to invent and manage
the whole thing. I'm just a little warped from the process of trying,
perhaps. :-)

Maybe I'll have some real success when I give up? :-)

Anyway, maybe I became the anti-Princeton, in a sense, somewhere along the
line? :-) Although, that's only metaphorically, because there were many
wonderful people at Princeton, and there was an emphasis on networking both
among the faculty and the alumni (Princeton is especially proud of the
Alumni network). Somehow, that academic network was often dysfunctional in
some deep way, even as it produced lots of papers about research results.
But, it is still powerful. Part of the dysfunction is perhaps values. Part
of it is perhaps the scarcity assumption. Part of it is the "disciplined
minds" aspect Jeff Schmidt talks about that relates to the first two. It
took me a long time to put all those pieces together:

Though I remember talking about some of this once at an international
visitor lunch and one woman, from India perhaps, saying how she was very
surprised to hear someone at Princeton talking about issues of distributed
technology or sustainability and so on. Obviously, people in other countries
have been talking about this for a long time, including inspired by EF
Schumacher's work (which I read too).

If a place like Princeton worked from an abundance assumption, it would be a
very different place, even with just all the same people and same buildings.
I don't know it well anymore (just from occasionally glancing at the alumni
magazine or interacting with some alumns online), so I can hope it has
changed. My little effort in that direction, even now:

But, I feel it will, like the rest of the world is doing, and Princeton will
follow or become irrelevant. At least, I hope it will. It may still take
more years of unnecessary suffering, but, compared to when I did my stuff
there, twenty years later there is an "office of sustainability" there now
and probably in another twenty years there will be an "office of peer
produced free content promotion". :-)

But the same is probably true for *any* university in terms of research. And
some have been closer to that in the past (even then, if I had been smarter
and more social, I could have found one, even on the US East coast, like
UMass Amherst, or wherever, assuming that even made sense).

And, as times change, hopefully this very issue becomes more laughable. And
less meaningful. It hopefully becomes more and more, "Of course universities
assume abundance ideology, that's what they are there for, to help create an
abundance of creative thinkers and doers and free ideas and related
intrinsically mutually secure infrastructure. How could they be anything
else?" Well, someday...

We try ideas. We learn. We move on (or try to).

The biggest issue about my plan above was, as I say on one of those web
pages, was realizing the difference between having a right as an employee
(who can be fired at will) and having a right as a citizen. And that's
really, in its deepest way, where the idea broke down. So, that's why that
corporate model (even as a non-profit) could never be what I hoped for it.
The idea there was like a basic income, or really, perhaps more like Charles
Fourier's Phalanstères, but such an idea is more secure as a right of
citizenship than a right of being an employee.

Otherwise, it is just creating a private welfare state, like many unions do
within one company, or like artists do when they just lobby for arts funding
but not a basic income for all.

Although, there is one difference -- the idea of a free commons of public
domain information. Even if you were "fired" from such a company, you would
still have access to all that knowledge. So, there is at least some equity
there, even in that old idea.

The core ideas was that a sustainable, secure, and self-replicating
infrastructure based around public domain knowledge would soon replace the
unsustainable insecure proprietary and dying infrastructure we had. And,
slowly, something like that is happening. And it is a beautiful thing to
see, even among the doom-and-gloom in the mainstream and even alternative
press. :-) And even if, for the most part, I've just been watching it from
the sidelines, and making a small contribution here and there (like with our
free garden simulator, such as it is -- we had much higher hopes for new
versions, etc. that never happened).

Anyway, I'm glad to see sustainability and peer production all happening,
even if it is some other way. It is the realization of the best aspiration
for the university ideal, and the enterprise of science and shared
publications to a common library. In that sense, the ideas I outlined were
just a reflection of the best aspirations of the community around me at
Princeton. And, even if the global physical infrastructure is not
self-replicating, through the web, in some sense, the ideological
infrastructure of abundance ideology (and the hope for that best aspiration
of free universities) has been self-replicating.

Back then, I did not understand that mythology is as important, if not more
so, than physical things. So, all the papers people here are writing, and
linking to, and discussing, are all really important.

Though, at some point, one wants to interlink those with physical
infrastructure. But I think it will happen. It is happening. Even without
yet more grand plans by me like this:

"Getting Greece and Iceland to be 99% self-sufficient by mass; international

or this:

"Re: [Open Manufacturing] 21,000 Flexible Public Fabrication Facilities
across the USA - by IdeaScale"

These ideas are still being voted down, as I must still be missing
something, from that last link, replying to my self with an update. :-)
Paul D. Fernhout wrote:
> I just posted this idea (previously posted to this list) to the USA's
> opengov site :
>   http://opengov.ideascale.com/akira/dtd/8412-4049
> It's already been voted against twice. :-(
It's up to voted against nine times (I'm the only positive vote. :-)
   People in New York State pay $20K per student to support a school system
that turns out human beings who often can't take care of themselves
materially and often don't even have a basic understanding of the technology
their lives depend on. We've spend endless amounts on other things, so US$50
billion is trivial in comparison (a few months of the Iraq war) for
something that would empower every person in every location in the USA to
learn about how to make things and have easy access to the tools they needed
to do hobbies or small businesses. I'm really surprised to see just nine
straight votes against the idea. I have to accept it if people don't like
the idea, but I remain surprised.
   I'd say maybe it was because the why section was so long and the
formatting was not preserved, but you can vote on these ideas from the main
page where you would not even see that section.
   One comment was: "The federal government has screwed up enough things
   So, that may reflect the sentiment that Libertarians and Republicans have
cultivated for decades. Richard Wolff makes a related point in "Capitalism
hits the fan" about how the US population has been trained to think
regulation is a dirty word.
Anyway, I'm obviously completely clueless about something here. :-)

So, Michel, I'm hoping for a footnote in some book you write someday. :-)
But, I'll understand in space is tight and it gets dropped. Even Earth
itself was only worth: "mostly harmless" as a description of everything
about it. :-)
The title derives from a joke early in the series, when Arthur Dent
discovers that the entry for Earth in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
consists, in its entirety, of the word "Harmless." His friend Ford Prefect,
a contributor to the Guide, assures him that the next edition will contain
the article on Earth that Ford has spent the last 15 years
researching—somewhat cut due to space restrictions, but still an
improvement. The revised article, he eventually admits, will simply read
"Mostly harmless." It later turns out that Ford had written a long essay on
how to have fun on Earth, but the editors in the guide's main office
building edited everything out. Later in the series, Ford is surprised to
discover that all of his contribution had been edited back into the Guide
(which makes no sense for a seemingly demolished planet) prompting his
reunion with Arthur on the alternate Earth in So Long, and Thanks for All
the Fish.

--Paul Fernhout

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