Sunday, September 14, 2008

P to P and Human Evolution

P2P and Human Evolution: Peer to Peer as the Premise of a New Mode of Civilization
Michel Bauwens

"The following essay describes the emergence, or expansion, of a specific type of relational dynamic, which I call peer to peer. It’s a form of human network-based organization which rests upon the free participation of equipotent partners, engaged in the production of common resources, without recourse to monetary compensation as key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control. This format is emerging throughout the social field: as a format of technology (the point to point internet, file sharing, grid computing, the Writeable Web initiatives, blogs), as a third mode of production which is also called Commons-based peer production (neither centrally planned nor profit-driven), producing hardware, software (often called Free Libre Open Sources Software or FLOSS) and intellectual and cultural resources (wetware) that are of great value to humanity (GNU/Linux, Wikipedia), and as a general mode of knowledge exchange and collective learning which is massively practiced on the internet. It also emerges as new organizational formats in politics, spirituality; as a new ‘culture of work’. This essay thus traces the expansion of this format, seen as a "isomorphism" (= having the same format), in as many fields as possible. But it does more than that: it tries to provide an explanatory framework of why it is emerging now, and how it fits in a wider evolutionary framework."

This is the first paragraph of an extraordinary essay written by Michel Bauwens. He considers P2P as the technological framework of what he calls "Cognitive Capitalism", a new evolutionary form of capitalism (the first two being merchant capitalism and industrial capitalism), P2P in the economic sphere, P2P in the political sphere, P2P in the cosmic sphere, P2P in the sphere of culture and self, and P2P and social change. The essay is 44 pages loaded with new thoughts. Ideas and networks of ideas spin fluidly from his writing. At this point, I have no way of knowing whether is right or not, but his ideas are provocative and certainly worth learning and discussing.

He makes the bold assertion that "P2P is nothing less than a premise of a new type of civilization that is not exclusively geared towards the profit motive."

The framework he uses is based on Ken Wilber's four quadrant system - subjective (evolution of self and subjectivity), materiality of a single organism (objectivity), intersubjective (the interaction of groups of subjectivities and the worldviews and cultures they create), and interobjective (behaviors of groups).

"My modified form of the four-quadrant system starts with the 'exterior-individual', i.e. single objects in space and time, i.e. the evolution of the material basis of the universe, life, and mind (the evolution from atoms to molecules to cells etc..), but in my personal modification, this quadrant includes technological evolution, as I (and others such as McLuhan) can legitimately see technology as an extension of the human body. Second, we will look at the systems (exterior-collective) quadrant: the evolution of natural, political, economic, social and organizational systems. Third, we will look at the exterior-collective quadrant: human culture, spiritualities, philosophies, worldviews. In the fourth quadrant we will be discussing the interior-individual aspects, and we look at changes occurring within the sphere of the self. However, in practice, despite my stated intention, I have found it difficult to separate individual and collective aspects of subjectivity and they are provisionally treated in one section. That this is so is not surprising, since one of the aspects of peer to peer is it participative nature, which sees the individual always-already embedded in social processes."

He defines peer to peer in this way. " It is a specific form of relational dynamic, is based on the assumed equipotency of its participants, organized through the free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task, for the creation of a common good. P2P is a network, not a hierarchy; it is decentralized; it a specific form of network using distributive intelligence: intelligence is located at any center, but everywhere within the system. Assumed equipotency means that P2P systems start from the premise that 'it doesn't know where the needed resource will be located', it assumes that 'everybody' can cooperate, and does not use formal rules in advance to determine its participating members. Equipotency, i.e. the capacity to cooperate, is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Validation of knowledge, acceptance of processes, are determined by the collective. Cooperation must be free, not forced, and not based on neutrality (i.e. the buying of cooperation in a monetary system). It exists to produce something. These are a number of characteristics that we can use to describe P2P systems 'in general', and in particular as it emerges in the human lifeworld. To have a good understanding of P2P, I suggest the following mental exercise, think about these characteristics, then about their opposites. So doing, the radical innovative nature of P2P springs to mind. Though P2P is related to earlier social modes, those were most in evidence in the early tribal era, and it now emerges in an entirely new context, enabled by technologies which go beyond the barriers of time and space. After the dominance during the last several millennia, of centralized and hierarchical modes of social organization, it is thus in many ways now a radically innovative emergence, and also reflects a very deep change in the epistemological and ontological paradigms that determine behavior and worldviews."

His conclusion is that "P2P networks are the key format of the technological infrastructure that supports the current economic, political and social systems."

He explains that P2P is a result of abundance - the abundance of information and its flow. Hierarchical systems create bottlenecks in the flow of abundant information. "Hierarchy only works with scarcity, and in a situation where the control of scarce resources determines the end result of the zero-sum power games being conducted. In a situation of abundance, centralized nodes cannot possible cope. Information, I probably do not need to remind the reader of this, is different from material goods, in that its sharing does not diminish its value, but on the contrary augments it."

He makes the key point that with an abundance of information and its relationship to complexity, P2P systems are the most effective and efficient means of solving problems. "Abundance is again both a cause and a consequence of complexity. In a situation of a multiplication of flows, flows that no longer follow predetermined routes, it cannot possible be predicted, where the 'solution' for any problem lies. Expertise comes out of a precise combination of experience, which is unpredictable in advance. Thus, systems are needed that allow expertise to unexpectedly announce itself, when it learns that it is needed. This is precisely what P2P systems allow to an unprecedented degree."

Later, Bauwens describes the work of Benkler and Krowne providing background for the emergence of P2P:

"Yochai Benkler, in a famous essay, 'Coase's Penguin', has given a rationale for the emergence of P2P production methodologies, based on the ideas of 'transaction cost'. In the physical world, the cost of bringing together thousands of participants may be very high, and so it may be cheaper to have centralized firms than an open market. This is why earlier experiences with collectivized economies could not work. But in the immaterial sphere used for the production of informational goods, the transaction goods are near-zero and therefore, open source production methods are cheaper and more efficient.

Aaron Krowne, writing for Free Software magazine, has proposed a set of laws to explain the higher efficiency of CBPP (= Commons-based peer production) models:

(Law 1.) When positive contributions exceed negative contributions by a sufficient factor in a CBPP project, the project will be successful.
This means that for every contributor that can 'mess things up', there have to be at least 10 others who can correct these mistakes. But in most projects the ration is 1 to 100 or 1 to 1000, so that quality can be maintained and improved over time.

(Law 2.) Cohesion quality is the quality of the presentation of the concepts in a collaborative component (such as an encyclopedia entry). Assuming the success criterion of Law 1 is met, cohesion quality of a component will overall rise. However, it may temporarily decline. The declines are by small amounts and the rises are by large amounts.

Individual contributions which may be useful by themselves but diminish the overall balance of the project, will always be discovered, so that decline can only be temporary.

(Corollary.) Laws 1 and 2 explain why cohesion quality of the entire collection (or project) increases over time: the uncoordinated temporary declines in cohesion quality cancel out with small rises in other components, and the less frequent jumps in cohesion quality accumulate to nudge the bulk average upwards. This is without even taking into account coverage quality, which counts any conceptual addition as positive, regardless of the elegance of its integration.

Krowne has also done useful work to define the authority models at work in such projects. The models define access and the workflow, and whether there is any quality control. The free-form model, which Wikipedia employs, allows anyone to edit any entry at any time. But in the owner-centric model, entries can only be modified with the permission of a specific 'owner' who has to defend the integrity of his module."

The author's view is that the owner-centric model is better for quality, but takes more time, while the free-form model increases the scope of coverage and is very fast.

He makes the point that scarcity is a construct of people. " We should also see that scarcity is in many ways a social construction. Nature was abundant to the tribal peoples, but when it was transformed into land that counted as property, land became scarce and a resource to be fought for. The enclosures movement in England was designed to precisely that. Out of land, previously plentiful resources were taken, and transformed into the form of property known as capital. Capital became scarce and to be fought for. Similarly today, the plentiful information commons that we produce, is being fought, so that it can turn into intellectual property, that can artificially be rendered scarce."

To explain the evolution of cooperation, he uses Edward Haskell's model - adversarial, neutral and synergistic cooperation. He points out that premodern imperial and feudal forms of society were based on adversarial form of cooperation. Cooperation was obtained by use of force. It was win-lose and the sum of 1 + 1 is always less than 2 in this type of cooperation. Capitalism introduced the neutral form of cooperation - the exchange of labor for fair compensation and a fair price for goods. At best capitalism is average. "Participants give just their money's worth. Neither participant in a neutral exchange gets better, 1 plus 1 equals 2."

However, P2P can result in synergistic cooperation, where 1 + 1> 2. "By definition, peer to peer processes are mobilized for common projects that are of greater use value to the wider community (since monetized exchange value falls away). True and authentic P2P therefore logically transforms into a win-win-win model, whereby not only the parties gain, but the wider community and social field as well. It is, in Edward Haskell's definition, a true synergetic cooperation. It is very important to see the 'energetic' effects of these different forms of cooperation, as I indicated above: 1) forced cooperation yields very low quality contributions; 2) the neutral cooperation format of the marketplace generates average quality contributions; 3) but freely given synergistic cooperation generates passion. Participants are automatically drawn to what they do best, at the moments at which they are most passionate and energetic about it. This is one of the fundamental reasons of the superior quality which is eventually, over time, created through open source projects."

Bauwens introduces the concept of rapport. "Arthur Coulter, author of a book on synergetics, adds a further twist explaining the superiority of P2P. He adds to the objective definition of Haskell, the subjective definition of 'rapport' based on the attitudes of the participants. Rapport is the state of persons who are in full agreement, and is determined by synergy (S), empathy (E), and communication (C). Synergy refers to interactions that promote the goals and efforts of the participants; empathy to the mutual understanding of the goals; and communication to the effective interchange of the data. His "Principle of Equivalence" states that the flow of S + E + C are optimal when they have equivalent status to each other." From this, he concludes that an egalitarian-supportive attitude is congenial to the success of P2P.

The author succinctly describes the difference between a market and P2P. "A market is based on the exchange of scarce goods, through a monetary mechanism. This is not the case for P2P products, which can be downloaded for free. They are not made for the profit obtained from the exchange value, but for their use value and acceptance by a user community."

In discussing freedom, he writes, "P2P is predicated on the maximum freedom. The freedom to join and participate, to fully express oneself and one's potential, the freedom to change course at any point in time, the freedom to quit. Within the common projects, freedom is constrained through communal validation and consensus (i.e. the freedom of others). But individuals can always leave, fork to a new project, create their own. The challenge is to find affinities, to create a common sphere with at least a few others and to create effective use value. Unlike in representative democracy, it is not a model based on a majority imposing its will on a minority."

He asserts that there is an emergence of a new form of power. "With the emergence of the Internet and peer to peer processes, yet a new form of power emerges, and Kumon calls it the Wisdom Game. In order to have influence, one must give quality knowledge away, and thus build reputation, through the demonstration of one's 'Wisdom'. The more one shares, the more this material is used by others, the higher one's reputation, the bigger one's influence."

He considers P2P as a new form of social exchange, "...what it reflects is an expansion of ethics: the desire to create and share, to produce something useful. The individual who joins a P2P project, puts his being, unadulterated, in the service of the construction of a common resource. Implicit is not just a concern for the narrow group, not just intersubjective relations, but the whole social field surrounding it.

Imagine a successful meeting of minds: individual ideas are confronted, but also changed in the process, through the free association born of the encounter with other intelligences. Thus eventually a common idea emerges, that has integrated the differences, not subsumed them. The participants do not feel they have made concessions or compromises, but feel that the new common integration is based on their ideas. There has been no minority, which has succumbed to the majority. There has been no 'representation', or loss of difference. Such is the true process of peer to peer.

An important philosophical change has been the abandonment of the unifying universalism of the Enlightenment project. Universality was to be attained by striving to unity, by the transcendence of representation of political power. But this unity meant sacrifice of difference. Today, the new epistemological and ontological requirement that P2P reflects, is not abstract universalism, but the concrete universality of a commons which has not sacrificed difference. This is the truth that the new concept of multitude, developed by Toni Negri and inspired by Spinoza, expresses. P2P is not predicated on representation and unity, but of the full expression of difference."

To read the entire essay, click here.

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