Michel Bauwens: A peer-to-peer economy

CulturaDigital.Br Festival poster.This interview is part of an exclusive series Paper.li is doing with the CulturaDigital.Br festival in Rio. Paper.li is CulturaDigital.Br’s media partner and is bringing our community a taste of the keynote speakers’ talks ahead of the event.

Peer-to-peer originated in technology… but can it help transform society? Michel Bauwens, leading P2P advocate, tells Paper.li that Yes, it can.

Michel Bauwens is an academic, former dotcom entrepreneur and information management pioneer who coined the idea of the ‘cybrarian’. These days, he is pretty prominent as founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, which works with global researchers to study peer to peer trends with the aim of proposing strategies for political and social change.

Many of us think of P2P as a kind of file-sharing. But it’s more than that?

Above all, it’s a relational dynamic in which people exchange not with each other as individuals, but with a commons. You can do this in small groups where people can trust each other, or — and this is the big news — you can now do it on a global scale, enabled by internet technologies. P2P technology allows for a new form of socialization that is changing how people behave towards each other.

What significance does it have for the wider world?

We are coming out of 300 years of a system where people were led to believe that only self-interested exchange would bring progress to themselves and society, and that such exchanges had to be mediated by institutions such as the state and large corporations.

People are finding they can aggregate with those who have like-minded goals and create very complex artifacts such as a global online encyclopedia, a computer operating system that can take people to the moon, computer motherboards and open source cars.

These projects can be infused with new cooperative ethics and still lead to vibrant market activities — but on a new basis, where the entrepreneurial coalitions have to compose with the commons, the community, and its rules and norms. This leads to a new type of ethical economy, and deep transformations in civil society.

Where does the Foundation for P2P Alternatives come in?

We are a global research collaborative and observatory building a knowledge commons in order to create more and more mutual alignment between the players. We want to augment the productive communities with a new mass social movement that is native to the digital age — #ows is a good example — as well as formulate policy demands to protect and sustain these new social practices.

What aspects of P2P have you been looking at recently?

How to render peer production ecologies more independent and autonomous from large corporations, through the creation of a new type of market entity which is community-supportive, mission-oriented, and uses profit-making (but not profit maximization) to sustain commons-based peer production.

Michel Bauwens explains P2P, by neotint/Flickr.We want to convince the players of the social economy, such as co-ops (100 million workers worldwide), the solidarity economy, social entrepreneurs, etc. to adopt the practice of shared innovation commons. So we want to ‘commonize’ the social economy, making it hyperproductive compared to classic corporations which ignore social and environmental externalities and are putting our biosphere, and humanity, in very great danger.

A new, open business model?

Models born from accepting shared innovation commons, limiting intellectual property rents and monopolies. In software, we can see how open source is systematically displacing pure proprietary plays wherever it emerges and this open content/fair-use economy has now reached one sixth of GDP. China’s growth is substantially based on the shanzai economy, which is a legal version of the open-source economy.

How and where can we see this happening? And what’s the relationship between old and new?

It is moving from the world of knowledge and executable software, to the world of design-for-making. The flagship is Arduino, a shared design motherboard; or Local Motors, a crowdsourced car.

Shared innovation commons and corporations, and capitalism in general, exist in a state of mutual dependency, and we are moving to some type of ‘prosumer’ capitalism. We will need to change to non-capitalist market dynamics.

It works like this: at the core you have a commons of knowledge, code and design and a community of contributors, paid or unpaid; these commons use ‘free’ licenses guaranteeing the shareability of the knowledge in the future; the infrastructure of cooperation is managed and made possible through a new type of for-benefit association, usually a non-profit foundation, such as Apache or Wikipedia. This association just maintains and protects the commons. Then there is a variety of companies and entrepreneurs operating in the market place, hiring contributors to the commons etc. This is the entrepreneurial coalition.

Today, these are still mostly for-profit corporations. Although a commons is created and sustained, the livelihood of contributors is still largely dependent on the classic economy, and this is what I and other people would like to change, by introducing a new type of commons-friendly market player.

If we look not at the commons economy, where something is mutually created, but at the sharing platforms, where individuals share their expressivity, we see corporate platforms making billions of dollars from free labour, but they are not returning that revenue to the value-creating participants.

Where is this headed?

My own opinion is that classic for-profit companies are too destructive for human survival, and that the system which maintains them is not sustainable. I think open-source communities will need to develop better suitable market entities, where profit making is subsumed to the larger social goal.

What are the challenges to be addressed next?

First, we need to create the necessary legal frameworks to make the new forms of cooperation possible. The odds of present institutions are stacked against it. Fossil fuels get about ten times more subsidies than renewables; soil-depleting industrial agriculture gets a multitude more support than soil-sustaining eco-agriculture; in many U.S. states, it’s forbidden to collect rainwater from your roof, to sell jam to your neighbours, grow vegetables in your garden.

Then there is the whole intellectual property regime, specifically designed to outlaw P2P cooperation. In terms of creating commons-friendly market entities, I propose to use the ‘peer production license’, which allows commons-contributing entities to share, but demands payment from those who do not contribute, in order to create a positive feedback loop for the ethical economy. Once we have integrated entrepreneurial coalitions intertwined with such productive commons, a lot of cooperation will become possible.

We need to free the state form, which has been essentially captured for the private interests of a predatory financial faction, and return to its more systemic role of maintaining a common good, however defined.

Student protest in Quebec, by shahk/Flickr.How can people become involved?

There are two ways to get involved. Out of idealism, the way of the pioneers, or out of necessity, because the mainstream system no longer offers possibilities. This is happening in advanced western countries, where the social contract has become negative, shrinking the social measures that made life bearable for the majority.

If you are young today, they’ll promise higher education fees, an increased chance to stay unemployed after you have accumulated student debt, the inability to buy a home, decimated pensions, and the necessity to continue to bailout bankrupt predatory financial institutions.

This drives more and more people in the peer economy. A study in Malmo, Sweden, estimated 52% of the citizenry was already involved in peer production. We need to combine the anger of resistance movements with the productive communities already engaged in peer production, to constitute a new social force that is able to construct the society that we need.

Do you have a real hope that one day we will have ‘open everything’?

We do not want to achieve any kind of totalitarian P2P system, where openness becomes an absolute obligation. Rather, we want a pluralistic economy, where people have a choice to share and cooperate, including deciding on the level of openness. The Creative Commons license is designed in precisely that way.

 

Michel will be talking about P2P on Saturday at CulturaDigital.Br, an arena for the exchange of ideas between art, technology, public policy and free culture taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 2nd-4th.

Don’t forget to watch the live stream at 11am Rio time (UTC/GMT-2hrs) on December 3rd to catch Michel’s talk!

This interviewer was interested to read more about P2P theory, and shares these links:

Do you have experience of successful — or unsuccessful — P2P projects? Share with us!

Photo credits: main photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck; Michel presenting: neotint (Flickr); student protest in Quebec, Canada: shahk (Flickr).

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  • William la Forge

    “I propose to use the ‘peer production license’, which allows commons-contributing entities to share, but demands payment from those who do not contribute, in order to create a positive feedback loop for the ethical economy.”

    This whole idea of non-contributors paying while contributors not paying really sucks. It means spending 60 hrs/week writing code and giving it away doesn’t count as much as uploading a copy of a book to a library.

    If you want p2p to really work, you need to take care not to penalize real contributors just because their contribution isn’t to one particular narrowly defined community. And who is to judge what contributions are meaningful? Systems built using my software use less power, but I don’t expect you to know that.

    Or are you going to give a ‘peer production license’ to everyone who uses Sourceforge, GitHub, etc? And how about every researcher who blogs about what they have discovered? Does someone have dreams of power and wants to found a huge bureaucracy for licenses?

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  • http://www.lizwilson.me/ Liz Wilson

    Tina, It’s great to hear your feedback and also about your sense of excitement when there’s so much negative news around :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=885330257 Tina Louise-uk

    Brilliant, thought-provoking piece, thank you. I am part of the Occupy movement (my tent is between the London Stock Exchange & St Paul’s Cathedral) and I find so much in this article to be to be excited about. There are similarities, possibilities and definately a sense of heading in the same direction.
    Namaste,
    Tina Louise

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