Michel Bauwens: Peer to Peer Alternatives


Click on image to view Michel’s slide presentation

Michel Bauwens is the founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives, which serves as a platform for those who view peer-to-peer technology as an engine of profound social change.

“Peer to peer (P2P) is based on the idea that everyone has a passion somewhere, in something. And you design the system so that everybody can easily find something where he can express and share his passion. So it’s not about everyone doing the same thing, in the same project, it’s about creating kind of a social system which is designed to harmonize your individual interests with the collective interest.”

The Internet has made it possible for people the world over to communicate on a previously unthinkable level, and although many elements of the Internet have grown more centralized over recent years, Michel cites the example of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica as proof that “distributed networks, globally co-ordinated, self-aggregating units can actually out-compete centralised entities”.

“You have on the one hand a classic publishing company with a fairly large budget, that hires wage workers who create knowledge, protects the intellectual property, organises everything, and creates a really good encyclopedia. Then you have Wikipedia, which has some issues, definitely, but basically the way it’s produced is a global co-ordination of small groups and individuals who use stigmergy, [the co-ordination of action by means of indirect communication between the engaged parties,] kind of like the language of the ants use to signal and co-ordinate amongst each other. It would have been unimaginable before the Internet that this type of dynamic could have replaced something like Britannica.”

Michel accepts that peer production may have some flaws; Wikipedia is not always 100% accurate, for example; but he does not agree that private enterprise is a better alternative.

“You have to be critical, certainly, with Wikipedia, but you have to be critical with everything. The assumption of these old-world people that The Wall Street Journal and CNN are trustworthy, I would question that. They’re corporately-owned, they have their own political agendas, sure there’s a level of professionalism and certain rules that they abide by, but at the same time, if you’d followed the American press there was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

“The idea is that we all shine a partial light on the object, but by having a system which allows these different things to shine, I can actually have a better view of reality because I can see it from more perspectives.

“I’m not saying it’s all fine, I’m just saying it adds another layer of complexity which is useful. And in any way, it’s inevitable; the cat is out of the bag. The blogs are out of the bag. The tweets are out of the bag, and you have to deal with it, you can’t just say “I wish people could only read newspapers”.”

Similarly, in the software world, he believes that intellectual property stifles rather than encourages innovation, and that commons-based peer production will succeed over large, centralized, private entities.

 “What I’m saying is, if you don’t do open-source, you’ll get money, maybe you can pay ten people, but if other people are pursuing the same in open-source, they will easily out-compete you, because they don’t have ten people, they have one thousand people. So, it’s a competitive must today, even as a private company, to consider the open-source way, which in software, I would argue, is now the default position.

“I talk with venture capitalists in California, and they say, “If you tell me that you’re closed source, you don’t get the money anymore”. They are actually convinced themselves that this is the default, because you have more people contributing and you have a community of motivated people pushing your project forward, you have viral marketing instead of P.R. marketing. Of course, they try to find hybrid models, they try to find a way in which they can be open-source and at the same time make money so that’s what’s developing is those hybrid modalities.”

The danger in these hybrid models is that this peer production is used as a means of wealth generation by the corporate entity, according to Michel, and he believes that “we have to find a new way of sharing value, which actually takes into account the fact that all  this free labour is happening. I’m part of a movement called the Free Culture Forum, and we propose a 15% return, so that any company that profits from any commons should give back 15% of its profit back to the commons.”

Even better, in Michel’s eyes, is that “people are forming their own entities and there are less and less companies. You have the OS Alliance in Austria, you have GCOOP in Argentina, I was talking to people in Kerala in India, and they said there are thousands of people working in free software co-ops there. This is what I like to see happening because then the value stays within the community. Because you pay yourself, and you do open-source.”

As well as providing a directory of open source software and hardware, and organisations and individuals interested in or working on peer to peer, Michel wants the P2P Foundation to a pluralist platform where people can discuss and dialogue around these issues and eventually find alignment”.

“I have a section on my wiki called P2P Infrastructure, and there’s literally thousands of people and groups in the world. Some of them were working before it, but Wikileaks was a milestone. People were saying, “Wow! they’re closing down the servers, they’re cutting the funding, they’re censoring speech”. So, a lot more people now are aware that this  corporate platforms are not to be trusted, or only be trusted to a certain degree. There’s really a wake up call.

“The thing that I want to do is mutual alignment, it’s the idea that if all the people doing peer and commons-oriented work can actually see that they’re part of a broad, underlying value and structural-change society, they can align better to what they should be doing, instead of working in isolation, in small groups. We need a new global narrative, but we actually need to say what is that story going to be? I’m saying this is the P2P story.”

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