Monday, February 20, 2006

P2P it’s more than a Software Distribution Model

As a matter of fact,  As political, economic, and social systems transform themselves into distributed networks, a new human dynamic is emerging: peer to peer (P2P). As P2P gives rise to the emergence of a third mode of production, a third mode of governance, and a third mode of property, it is poised to overhaul our political economy in unprecedented ways. Not since Marx identified the manufacturing plants of Manchester as the blueprint for the new capitalist society has there been a deeper transformation of the fundamentals of our social life. But, this is more of a tech blog than a political one (although the two increasingly interact). I will focus on:
P2P and the Netarchists
Peer to peer processes contribute to more specific forms of distributed capitalism. The massive use of open source software in business, enthusiastically supported by venture capital and large IT companies such as IBM, is creating a distributed software platform that will drastically undercut the monopolistic rents enjoyed by companies such as Microsoft and Oracle, while Skype and VoIP will drastically redistribute the telecom infrastructure. In addition, it also points to a new business model that is 'beyond' products, focusing instead on services associated with the nominally free FS/OS software model. Industries are gradually transforming themselves to incorporate user-generated innovation, and a new intermediation may occur around user-generated media. Many knowledge workers are choosing non-corporate paths and becoming mini-entrepreneurs, relying on an increasingly sophisticated participatory infrastructure, a kind of digital corporate commons.
The for-profit forces that are building and enabling these new platforms of participation represent a new subclass, which I call the netarchical class. If cognitive capitalism is to be defined by the primacy of intellectual assets over fixed capital industrial assets, and thus on the reliance of an extension of IP rights to establish monopolistic rents, (as the vectoral capitalists described by Mackenzie Wark derive their power from the control of the media vectors) then these new netarchical capitalists prosper from the enablement and exploitation of the participatory networks. It is significant that Amazon built itself around user reviews, eBay lives on a platform of worldwide distributed auctions, and Google is constituted by user-generated content. However, although these companies may rely on IP rights for the occasional extra buck, it is not in any sense the core of their power. Their power relies on their ownership of the platform.
More broadly, netarchical capitalism is a brand of capital that embraces the peer to peer revolution, all those ideological forces for whom capitalism is the ultimate horizon of human possibility. It is the force behind the immanence of peer to peer. Opposed to it, though linked to it in a temporary alliance, are the forces of Common-ism, those that put their faith in the transcendence of peer to peer, in a reform of the political economy beyond the domination of the market.

This is fascinating stuff written by Michel Bauwens  and expanded well beyond what I have posted above in a paper called: The Political Economy of Peer Production

In addition to the highly recommended article hyperlinked in it’s entirety above, Lets look at these points as well provided by Mr. Bauwens:
P2P does not refer to all behavior or processes that take place in distributed networks: P2P specifically designates those processes that aim to increase the most widespread participation by equipotential participants. We will define these terms when we examine the characteristics of P2P processes, but here are the most general and important characteristics.
P2P processes:

  1. produce use-value through the free cooperation of producers who have access to distributed capital: this is the P2P production mode, a 'third mode of production' different from for-profit or public production by state-owned enterprises. Its product is not exchange value for a market, but use-value for a community of users.

  2. are governed by the community of producers themselves, and not by market allocation or corporate hierarchy: this is the P2P governance mode, or 'third mode of governance.'

  3. make use-value freely accessible on a universal basis, through new common property regimes. This is its distribution or 'peer property mode': a 'third mode of ownership,' different from private property or public (state) property.
The Infrastructure of P2P
What has been needed to facilitate the emergence of peer to peer processes?
The first requirement is the existence of a technological infrastructure that operates on peer to peer processes and enables distributed access to 'fixed' capital. Individual computers that enable a universal machine capable of executing any logical task are a form of distributed 'fixed capital,' available at low cost to many producers.
The internet, as a point to point network, was specifically designed for participation by the edges (computer users) without the use of obligatory hubs. Although it is not fully in the hands of its participants, the internet is controlled through distributed governance, and outside the complete hegemony of particular private or state actors. The internet's hierarchical elements (such as the stacked IP protocols, the decentralized Domain Name System, etc...) do not deter participation.
Viral communicators, or meshworks, are a logical extension of the internet. With this methodology, devices create their own networks through the use of excess capacity, bypassing the need for a pre-existing infrastructure. The 'Community Wi-Fi' movement, Open Spectrum advocacy, file-serving television, and alternative meshwork-based telecommunication infrastructures are exemplary of this trend.
The second requirement is alternative information and communication systems which allow for autonomous communication between cooperating agents.
The web (in particular the Writeable Web and the Web 2.0 that is in the process of being established) allows for the universal autonomous production, dissemination, and 'consumption' of written material while the associated podcasting and webcasting developments create an 'alternative information and communication infrastructure' for audio and audiovisual creation.   The existence of such an infrastructure enables autonomous content production that may be distributed without the intermediary of the classic publishing and broadcasting media (though new forms of mediation may arise).
The third requirement is the existence of a 'software' infrastructure for autonomous global cooperation.
A growing number of collaborative tools, such as blogs and wiki's, embedded in social networking software facilitate the creation of trust and social capital, making it possible to create global groups that can create use-value without the intermediary of manufacturing or distribution by for-profit enterprises.
The fourth requirement is a legal infrastructure that enables the creation of use-value and protects it from private appropriation. The General Public License (which prohibits the appropriation of software code), the related Open Source Initiative, and certain versions of the Creative Commons license fulfill this role. They enable the protection of common use-value and use viral characteristics to spread. GPL and related material can only be used in projects that in turn put their adapted source code in the public domain.
The fifth requirement is cultural. The diffusion of mass intellectuality, (i.e. the distribution of human intelligence) and associated changes in ways of feeling and being (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology) and value constellations (axiology) have been instrumental in creating the type of cooperative individualism needed to sustain an ethos which can enable P2P projects.
The Characteristics of P2P
P2P processes occur in distributed networks. Distributed networks are networks in which autonomous agents can freely determine their behavior and linkages without the intermediary of obligatory hubs.
As Alexander Galloway insists in his book on protocollary power, distributed networks are not the same as decentralized networks, for which hubs are obligatory.
P2P is based on distributed power and distributed access to resources. In a decentralized network such as the U.S.-based airport system, planes have to go through determined hubs; however, in distributed systems such as the internet or highway systems, hubs may exist, but are not obligatory and agents may always route around them.
P2P projects are characterized by equipotentiality or 'anti-credentialism.' This means that there is no a priori selection to participation. The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Thus, projects are open to all comers provided they have the necessary skills to contribute to a project. These skills are verified, and communally validated, in the process of production itself.
This is apparent in open publishing projects such as citizen journalism: anyone can post and anyone can verify the veracity of the articles. Reputation systems are used for communal validation. The filtering is a posteriori, not a priori. Anti-credentialism is therefore to be contrasted to traditional peer review, where credentials are an essential prerequisite to participate.
P2P projects are characterized by holoptism. Holoptism is the implied capacity and design of peer to peer processes that allows participants free access to all the information about the other participants; not in terms of privacy, but in terms of their existence and contributions (i.e. horizontal information) and access to the aims, metrics and documentation of the project as a whole (i.e. the vertical dimension).
This can be contrasted to the panoptism which is characteristic of hierarchical projects: processes are designed to reserve 'total' knowledge for an elite, while participants only have access on a 'need to know' basis. However, with P2P projects, communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system.
The above does not exhaust the characteristics of peer production. I will post more when it becomes available to me. Special thanks again to Robin Good.


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