P2P Foundation

The Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives

Bauwens: "P2P is for the 21st century, what socialism was for the 19th and 20th century"

I took the liberty to translate an interview with Michel Bauwens, by Anne-Sophie Novel (published first in French on Greensiders).  

"Peer-to-peer", often abbreviated P2P, allows for example to exchange music files or movies on the Internet. Napster, eDonkey, eMule, Kazaa or more recently Spotify ... P2P systems are prominent examples of P2P. However, this mode of operation gradually permeates our thinking, to the point of incarnating, for some, a powerful lever to change the world. This is certainly the thesis put forward by Michel Bauwens, one of the most renowned scholars of peer-to-peer and founder of the Foundation for P2P-alternatives.

Antonin Leonard and I met Michel Bauwens in a Parisian brasserie in December 2011 in order to better understand his thesis, that would indeed provide viable solutions to ensure the future of our societies.

Greensiders: How does one get involved in the world of P2P?

Michel Bauwens: In the late 1990s I was participating in the research on the long-term strategy of the telephone company Belgacom. I became aware of the glaring inconsistencies dominating our world: environmental damage, social injustice, degradation of the quality of human relations, etc. There was a whole set of indicators pointing "in the wrong direction." I started questioning myself and began to realize that the logic of peer-to-peer is a powerful 'leveraging' formula to address the failures in the system. When you are looking for alternatives today, you need to turn to P2P because it is there that the structures are changing. This lever for change corresponds first of all with a new technological paradigm, not with a traditional ideology. The revolution induced by P2P will have similar effects as those caused by the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The P2P movement is to the 21st century, what socialism was for the 19th and 20th century.

Greensiders: The concept seems a bit cryptic at first sight. Can you give a simple definition?

Michel Bauwens: In my opinion, and following the grammar of human relationships deviced by Alan Page Fiske, there are four basic modes of human relations. The first is the ‘gift-mode’, gift against gift, as our ancestors did, in tribal societies, and as we are still doing within the family and amongst friends and neighbours Then we have the hierarchical mode, as expressed for example in the relationship between parents and children. Thirdly, there’s the merchant mode, where goods and services are exchanged on the market. And finally there’s the “common mode”, in which each can contribute to the common good. This is the most beneficial option. It is just that what P2P is: contribute to the commons. This concept is easy to understand when you take the example of natural common goods, such as air or water, or when we talk about knowledge sharing.

Greensiders: How does "peer to peer” work?

Michel Bauwens: The functioning of P2P is founded on a networked architecture: it is based on the voluntary participation of people in the production of common resources. The motivation of its contributors is not based on a mechanism of financial compensation. Traditional management methods (by executing command and control) are also "old school" because they no longer function well for contemporary humans. P2P creates a "common" rather than a market or a state; it allocates resources according to social relations and not according to price mechanisms or a hierarchical system.

Greensiders: More concretely, what would a P2P society be like?

Michel Bauwens: It would be a society based on the logic of "open source", which is not that utopian. It is an extension of what we observe in the pioneering sectors of software production. The essential value is created under common license, its management structure has a non-profit cause and the markets are organized around it. At the level of the social order, the core of the new company is a collection of common goods managed by democratic institutions completing the role of the partner state, guaranteeing the community spirit of sharing and cooperation. The ethical economy resulting from this ensures that corporations respect the environment and the interests of citizens for the good reason that their success depends on their productive relationship with the wider community of contributors to the "commons". This model of society does not abolish anything, but changes everything in a more balanced synthesis.

Greensiders: But how do we apply peer-to-peer in the material world

Michel Bauwens: By playing on reciprocity, for instance: people need to know what their interests are if they contribute to a local exchange. Another example? Local Motors, a car manufacturer in open-source model, can co-create a car, which is produced locally. Thousands of cars have already been produced in this way. For another project funded by DARPA, Local Motors has generated more than 30,000 design contributions of engineers. On a local scale, imagine the amount of stuff that could be shared amongst neighbours. For every chore there surely is somebody who can help you out of the corner! Finally, P2P practices are based on a change of perspective: everyone can compensate for the failures of others. When we lack a resource or a particular knowledge, I can find it in my community. Scarce resources from the point of view of the individual are susceptible to share. The importance is to see how we can exchange without collectivizing. The challenge lies in the way in which we can generate trust and model these exchanges.

Greensiders: When can we expect to live in such a society?

Michel Bauwens: When the era of cheap energy comes to an end. We will then re-localize production with redistributed capital ("crowdsourcing", etc..), production tools will be more miniaturized (multi-machines, FabLabs, 3D printers) and everything will be based on "common shared innovation." The deployment of P2P networks lead to a "flattening" of society: in contrast to the vertical institutions that dominate our current organizations, this economic and civilization philosophy tends to rebalance our value systems. In the end, small-scale knowledge will be put to a more global scale, and the whole society will shift from a centralized logic to a logic of mutual coordination. It's been now fifteen years that things are redistributed to the Internet. The social change is accelerating, we find ourselves in a phase of emergence .

Greensiders: But all countries are not in the same phase of emergence.

Michel Bauwens: It’s true: this new economic model is favoured in countries where free culture is highly developed, above all in Latin America and particularly Brazil. The problem of Europe is that it is already too late to change the model. Emerging economies have yet to build a lot of infrastructure. They are free to choose other organisational modes; hence Brazil favours peer-to-peer structures. There are also favourable conditions in Europe; I think France has the biggest number of bloggers in the world. But the majority of politicians are not well aware of this new development of peer production. We need real politics of social change build on emerging civic movements. Movements like the "Indignados" or "Occupy Wall Street" are born in the digital age and represent the first expressions of political organizations influenced by digital technology. When these organizations will gain influence, they will promote peer-to-peer. The Pirate Party, close to the open-source movement, has already a majority amongst the youth vote in Berlin and Sweden!

Greensiders: Is the introduction of a basic income for everyone the first step to take in order to accelerate this change?

A basic income is probably a good idea, but I take up the idea of income transition of my Belgian friend Arnsperger, which that seems more applicable in the current state of affairs. The idea is, from today, to reward those who invest time and energy in the transition.

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