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The believer in open spaces

30 July 2009

V Sasi Kumar

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Michel Bauwens, founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation, talks about the Free Software and Wikipedia movements as pointers to a genuine change in the way we think, create and distribute goods.

Michel Bauwens is one of those who believe in open spaces and creation without incentive. Like Richard Stallman who left his prestigious job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started the Free Software Foundation, Michel also left a remunerative corporate job to start the Peer to Peer Foundation that tries to study the evolving peer to peer production and distribution systems exemplified by Free Software and Wikipedia.

Michel Bauwens was in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in December 2008, to participate in the Free Software Free Society conference and talked about the work of the Foundation.

Michel Bauwens/ Photo credit: InfoChange India

In this interview, done through email after his return to Thailand, Michel speaks about how he decided to leave his job and start the P2P Foundation, what principles the Foundation is based on, what its work is, and how the work has been progressing. 

You were an information scientist and magazine editor before you started the P2P Foundation. Can you tell us about this evolution? How did it happen?

My first job (but without any formal library and information science training, as I studied political science) was nine years as reference librarian and information analyst for a centre in Brussels. In 1990, I started working as strategic business information manager at the headquarters of the agribusiness wing of British Petroleum. At that time, I reformulated the role of librarian into that of ‘cybrarian’, ie managing “just in time, just for you” information streams to senior management who were not in any real sense using the physical library resources anymore.

As the animal feed businesses were divested by 1993, I moved on to creating a Flemish magazine that was a mix of Mondo 2000 and Wired, and then became one of the Internet evangelists in my home country, leading to work as a serial Internet entrepreneur. 

From my very first encounter with the Internet, ie collective mailing lists combining experts from around the world, I knew this was a technology that would change the very fabric of our world. Never before had there been such real-time possibilities for human cooperation and collective intelligence on a global scale. From now on, the privileged communication infrastructures that were only in the hands of multinationals and the State, would be distributed and democratised, a shift at least as important as the effect of the printing press. 

At the same time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate world, seeing how the neoliberal system not only created increased social inequality, exacted a terrible psychic cost from even its privileged managerial layers, while also creating havoc in our natural world. I started seeing the system as a giant Ponzi scheme (a scheme in which the profit of those who invest earlier comes from those who invest later), so what surprised me was not the meltdown of 2008, but why it took so long to actually manifest itself!

At the same time, there was a revival of social resistance starting in 1995, and I was noticing, as a professional trend-watcher, that there was a common template in the new forms of social organisation, the one I now call the ‘peer to peer’ dynamic, or ‘voluntary permissionless self-aggregation around the production of common value’.

Key for me was the observation of the Internet bust in April 2000, which I witnessed from a privileged position as I was working in the same sector. As the stock market imploded, pundits were predicting the end of the Internet because no more capital was available for innovation and development. In fact the opposite happened -- rather than diminishing, innovation increased, entirely driven by the social field of aggregating geeks, giving birth to the Web 2.0, the first social model based on an interrelationship between new forms of capitalism and user-generated production of value. I knew then that I would study this phenomenon more deeply, and in particular since I consider peer aggregation to be a non-alienating form of work, how it could be leveraged as a force for social change.

So in October 2002, I decided to quit my corporate engagement, take a sabbatical to think things through, and moved to Thailand to create a global cyber-collective to research and promote P2P dynamics.

Is there a basic set of hypotheses from which the Foundation starts?

Yes, I formulated the following principles when I started the Foundation:

  • That peer to peer-based technology reflects a change of consciousness towards participation, and in turn, strengthens it.
  • That the ‘distributed network’ format, expressed in the specific manner of peer to peer relations, is a new form of political organising and subjectivity, and an alternative for the current political/economic order, i.e. I believe that peer to peer allows for ‘permission-less’ self-organisation to create common value, in a way that is more productive than both the state and private for-profit alternatives. People can now engage in peer production that creates very complex ‘products’ that can achieve higher quality standards than pure corporate competitors.

I also believe that it creates a new public domain, an information commons, which should be protected and extended, especially in the domain of common knowledge-creation; and that this domain, where the cost of reproducing knowledge is near-zero, requires fundamental changes in the intellectual property regime, as reflected by new forms such as the free software movement; that universal common property regimes, ie modes of peer property such as the general public licence and the creative commons licences should be promoted and extended.

These principles developed by the free software movement, in particular the general public licence, and the general principles behind the open source and open access movements, provide for models that could be used in other areas of social and productive life.

If we can connect this new mode of production, pioneered by knowledge workers, with the older traditions of sharing and solidarity of workers and farmers movements, then we can build a very strong contemporary social movement that can transcend the failures of socialism.

I think it also offers youth a vision of renewal and hope, to create a world that is more in tune with their values.

I call the new peer to peer mode a ‘total social fact’, because it integratively combines subjectivity (new values), inter-subjectivity (new relations), objectivity (an enabling technology) and inter-objectivity (new forms of organisation) that mutually strengthen each other in a positive feedback loop, and it is clearly on the offensive and growing, but lacking ‘political self-consciousness’. It is this form of awareness that the P2P Foundation wants to promote.

Was this mostly your work, or were others involved in formulating these principles? 

I formulated the principles on my own, but also after at least two years of reading, and of being attuned with the zeitgeist (zeitgeist describes the intellectual, cultural, ethical and political climate, ambience and morals of an era). Others were formulating similar ideas, though in different ways. So as usual we should not claim too much personal merit; we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past, and are simply lucky to accompany a deep shift in human consciousness that would be taking place without us just as well. At the most, we can try to put some extra grease in the machine.

What exactly does the Foundation do?

We want to be an interconnecting platform for people involved in realising the new open and free, participatory and commons-oriented paradigms in every social field. So, we are monitoring and describing real-world initiatives, theoretical efforts, creating a library of primary and secondary material, and trying to make sense of that aggregation by developing a coherent set of concepts and principles. We do this with a wiki, with nearly 8,000 pages of information, which have been viewed over 5 million times; through a blog reaching about 35,000 unique users last year, a Ning community with a few hundred members, and a number of mailing lists.

The most active is the peer to peer research list, where academics and non-academics can collaboratively reach understandings. We also had two annual physical meet-ups in Belgium and the UK, and have some national groups such as in the Netherlands and Greece. There’s a lot of hidden activity acting as connectors between various initiatives, which, despite the global Internet, often don’t know they are working on very similar projects that could reinforce each other.

Peer to peer happens without us, but we want to add a little interconnecting grease to the system. My ultimate aim is to create a powerful social movement that can support the necessary reforms for social justice, sustainability of the natural world, and opening up science and culture to open and free sharing and collaboration, so that the whole weight of the collective intelligence of humanity can be brought to bear on the grave challenges we are facing.

Do you see a P2P society as the state into which a society should evolve naturally? Something like how capitalist society evolved from feudal society?

If we look at the transition from slavery to feudalism, and from feudalism to capitalism, I think we discover a similar pattern. An old system in crisis and decline, the birth of more productive methods of creating value, and both sections of the ruling class and of the ‘producing’ class morphing to adapt to the new possibilities. Before feudalism and capitalism became disruptive to the old orders that they replaced they actually were used to strengthen the old order, and stave off their decline, because they were better ways of organising production and social relationships. So, today, hyper-productive peer to peer dynamics are being born in a mutually dependent relationship with capitalism, but ultimately slated to replace it.

But first it needs to grow from seed form to parity form -- think of the situation in Rome between the 5th and 10th century, or 18th century European capitalism existing within the still-dominant remnants of the late feudal order of the ancient regime. Today, we see knowledge and other workers increasingly adopting modes of peer production, and netarchical capitalists such as Google and YouTube enabling and empowering sharing platforms, while extracting value from the value engendered through that social cooperation. All these processes take time, but that does not mean that they are necessarily smooth.

The more established interests try to stop more productive alternatives, the more tension they create in the social system, the more this will express itself in crisis form. Both the birth of feudalism and capitalism were rather harsh transitions. This time we may hope that the global crisis of the biosphere, and the speed of innovation through global networks will speed up the process of change significantly.

I sometimes use the concept of ‘conditional inevitability’ to name this state of affairs in which a form of change is both necessary and likely, but can still be derailed because it depends on human agency and social struggle and creativity.

For full interview, click here.

V Sasi Kumar is a scientist and writer based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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