P2P: an introduction to Peer to Peer by Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives which explores "peer production, governance, and property" and resonates in many ways with Bioteams. Michel addresses his most frequently asked question "So what is P2P anyway?"


Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives

Alexander Galloway in his book Protocol makes an important and clear distinction between centralized networks (with one central hub where everything must pass and be authorized, as in the old telephone switching systems), decentralized systems, with more than one center, but these subcenters still being authorative (such as the airport system in the U.S. centered around hubs where planes must pass through), from distributed systems, where hubs may exist, but are not obligatory (such as the internet).


In distributed networks, participants may freely link with each other, they are fully autonomous agents. Hence the importance to clearly distinguish between our usage of the concepts 'decentralized' vs. 'distributed'. Peer to peer is specifically the relational dynamic that arises in distributed networks.


So: what is peer to peer?

Here's a first tentative definition:

P2P 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, with forms of decision-making and autonomy that are widely distributed throughout the network.

This is of course a strong definition and statement, subject to a lot of refining and caveats.


P2P processes are not structureless, but are characterized by dynamic and changing structures which adapt themselves to phase changes. Its rules are not derived from an external authority, as in hierarchical systems, but generated from within. It does not deny 'authority', but only fixed forced hierarchy, and therefore accepts authority based on expertise, initiation of the project, etc... P2P may be the first true meritocracy.


The threshold for participation is kept as low as possible. Equipotency means that there is no prior formal filtering for participation, but rather that it is the immediate practice of cooperation which determines the expertise and level of participation. Communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system. Techniques of 'participation capture' and other social accounting make automatic cooperation the default scheme of the project. Personal identity becomes partly generated by the contribution to the common project. As we will see, this is part and parcel of a widespread transformation to a mode of being which we call 'cooperative individualism'. P2P is not a return to earlier forms of community, but something new.


P2P is a network, not a pyramidal hierarchy (though it may have elements of it); it is 'distributed', though it may have elements of hierarchy, centralization and 'decentralization'; intelligence is not 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.


Acceptance in P2P projects is not based on formal credentials, since it is no longer believed that skills can be reflected in such formal documents, and they are therefore 'anti-credentialist'. Equipotency, i.e. the capacity to cooperate, is verified in the process of cooperation itself. Such an equipotency is widely differentiated, as complex projects need a vastly differentiated skillset. Thus, competition is limited, and replaced by complementarity. This is also why authority is widely distributed and subject to change. 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. It enables the widest possible participation.


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. Whereas participants in hierarchical systems are subject to the panoptism of the select few who control the vast majority, in P2P systems, participants have access to holoptism, the ability for any participant to see the whole. Further on we will examine more in depth characteristics such as de-formalization, de-institutionalization, de-commodification, which are also at the heart of P2P processes.


Whereas hierarchical systems are based on creating homogeneity amongst its 'dependent' members, distributed networks using the P2P dynamic regulate the 'interdependent' participants preserving heterogeneity. It is the 'object of cooperation' itself which creates the temporary unity. Culturally, P2P is about unity-in-diversity, or 'difference-in-unity': it is concrete 'post-Enlightenment' universalism predicated on common goals and projects; while hierarchy is predicated on creating sameness through identification and exclusion, and is associated with the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment.


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 that 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.


An important clarification is that when we say that peer to peer systems have no hierarchy or are not centralized, we do not necessarily mean the complete absence of such characteristics. But in a P2P system, the use of hierarchy and centralization, serve the goal of participation and many-to-many cooperation, and are not used to prohibit or dominate it. This means that though P2P arises in distributed networks, not all distributed networks exhibit P2P processes. Many distributed bottom-up processes, such as the swarming behavior of insects, of the behavior of buyers and sellers in market, are not true P2P processes, to the degree that they lack holoptism, or do not promote participation. Insects in a swarm, do not have information about the whole, they follow markers that determine their individual behaviour. And a market is not equipotent since it excludes those without purchasing power. P2P, as a uniquely human phenomenon integrates moral and intentional aspects. When distributed meshworks, for example interlinking boards of directors, serve a hierarchy of wealth and power, and are based on exclusion rather than participation, this does not qualify as a full P2P process.


P2P can be a partial element of another process; or it can be a full process. For examples, the technological and collaborative infrastructure build around P2P principles, may enable non-P2P processes. In the example just above, it is the infrastructure of Empire, but it can also enable new types of marketplaces, gift/sharing economy practices. Where P2P is a full process, we will argue that it is a form of communal shareholding producing a new type of Commons.



About Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is an active writer, researcher and conference speaker on the subject of technology, culture and business innovation. He is the founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. He has been an analyst for the United States Information Agency, knowledge manager for British Petroleum, eBusiness Strategy Manager for Belgacom, as well as an internet entrepreneur in his home country of Belgium. He has co-produced the 3-hour TV documentary Technocalyps with Frank Theys, and co-edited the two-volume book on anthropology of digital society with Salvino Salvaggio. Michel is currently Primavera Research Fellow at the University of Amsterdam and external expert at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (2008). Michel currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


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