Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, October 14, 2004day link 

 The Peer to Peer Paradigm
picture Michel Bauwens wrote an excellent paper:
Peer to Peer - from technology to politics to a new civilization?
A specter is haunting the world: the specter of Peer To Peer. The existing economic system is trying to co-opt it, but it is also a harbinger of a new type of human relationship, and may in the end be incompatible with informational capitalism.
Indeed, it may. And this is important stuff. First, if anybody's still confused about what Peer to Peer is, here's this from Wikipedia:
Generally, a peer-to-peer (or P2P) computer network is any network that does not have fixed clients and servers, but a number of peer nodes that function as both clients and servers to the other nodes on the network. This model of network arrangement is contrasted with the client-server model. Any node is able to initiate or complete any supported transaction. Peer nodes may differ in local configuration, processing speed, network bandwidth, and storage quantity. One of the first uses of the phrase "peer to peer" is in 1984, with the development of the "Advanced Peer to Peer Networking" architecture at IBM.
It is that we can do something between our computers, without needing centralized servers. Sharing music files has been the most successful application of this model. It is widely held by internet enthusiasts as some kind of holy grail ideal of how things should work. Ultimate democracy and freedom from hierarchies. Individuals working together as they please, without needing hierarchical control. It is not just the technical thing as described above. It is also something way beyond internet protocols. It is for example a new way of doing work:
P2P is not just the form of technology itself, but increasingly, it is a "process of production", a way of organising the way that immaterial products are produced (and distributed and "consumed"). The first expression of this was the Free Software movement launched by Richard Stallman. Expressed in the production of software such as GNU and its kernel Linux, tens of thousands of programmers are cooperative producing the most valuable knowledge capital of the day, i.e. software. They are doing this in small groups that are seamlessly coordinated in the greater worldwide project, in true peer groups that have no traditional hierarchy. Eric Raymond's seminal essay/book "The Cathedral and The Bazaar", has explained in detail why such a mode of production is superior to its commercial variants.
And it isn't an entirely new thing. This way of working is what has worked fairly well in science for a long time.
Please also remember that peer to peer is in fact the extension of the methodology of the sciences, which have been based since 300 years on "peer review". Scientific progress is indeed beholden to the fact that scientists are accountable, in terms of the scientific validity of their work, to their peers, and not to their funders or bureaucratic managers. And the early founders of the Free Software movement where scientists from MIT, who exported their methodology from knowledge exchange to the production of software. In fact, MIT has published data showing that since a lot of research has been privatised in the U.S., the pace of innovation has in fact slowed down. Or simply compare the fact of how Netscape evolved when it was using Open Source methods and was supported by the whole internet community, as compared to the almost static evolution of Internet Explorer, now that it is the property of Microsoft.
Peer to Peer production, as in open source software, might potentially do it better than the development of science, which is after all still based heavily on entrenched hierarchies, which don't allow entrance to just anybody. P2P done right might allow the best stuff available to be distributed most widely. And it might simply be a better way of organizing, which naturally will outcompete the older, more inefficient and cumbersome approaches.
One has of course to ask oneself, why is this emergence happening, and I believe that the answer is clear. The complexity of the post-industrial age makes centralised command and control approaches, based on the centralised control, inoperable. Today, intelligence is indeed "everywhere" and the organisation of technology and work has to acknowledge that.

And more and more, we are indeed forced to conclude that peer to peer is indeed a more productive technology and way of organising production than its hierarchical, commodity-based predecessors. This is of course most clear in the music industry, where the fluidity of music distribution via P2P is an order of magnitude greater, and at marginal cost, than the commodity-based physical distribution of CDs.

This situation leads to a interesting and first historical analogy: when capitalist methods of production emerged, the feudal system, the guilds and the craftsmen at first tried to oppose and stop them (up to the physical liquidation of machines by the Luddites in the UK), but they largely failed. It is not difficult to see a comparison with the struggle of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) against Napster: they may have won legally, but the phenomenon is continuing to spread. In general, we can interpret many of the current conflicts as pitting against each other the old way of production, commodity-based production and its legal infrastructure of copyright, and the new technological and social practices undermining these existing processes. In the short term, the forces of the old try to increase their hold and faced with subverting influences, strengthen the legal and the repressive apparatus. But in the long term the question is: can they hold back these more productive processes?
In a free market, they can't, of course. But it isn't an entirely free market. You can legally force people to use inferior and more expensive solutions. At least to an extent.

P2P also applies to poltical organization and to economics and to news.

Politically speaking, we're talking about that people might rise up and change things, without any centralized hierarchical organization, and without obvious leaders. Which, when it works, seems a better fit than the alternatives. Traditionally, movements towards putting The People in power have been considered leftists, and have usually involved some massive centralized organization which tries to get their hands on government power. And when they do, it again becomes just another hierarchy and not really power to the people. Look at communism, obviously. Now, free people in a network, well organized, but in a flexible non-hierarchical manner - that can be quite a different matter. Something very difficult for the traditional oppressive powers to fight against, because they don't know who to take out.

As to economics, there are local currency systems like LETS, and there's barter systems. And underground economies and black markets. And gift economies. In P2P the idea is that you can just go and do it, and that you can exchange with whoever it is appropriate to exchange with. Whether the government or a bank thinks it is good or not.

As to news, there are blogs. Networked peer to peer information. And there are networks like IndyMedia. Hard-hitting grassroots non-corporate owner information. No spokesmen, no anchors, no owners.

P2P networks work on different rules than what they're replacing. It is no longer that the winner is whoever has the most power, the most money, the best ads, or the biggest police force. These things are replaced with a more free market competition. Reputation suddenly becomes more important. It is now more important that people know about and like what you're doing, and that they find it useful. Actually useful, not just being tricked into buying it.

In an economy of abundance, like the internet's abundance of information, there's competition for the scarce resource of attention. Thus it becomes an attention economy. Or, rather, that's the still somewhat corporate way of looking at it. The real way of getting attention is to put good stuff into the hands of as many people as possible, and letting them know you did it. Not just by, eh, attracting attention, in the advertising sense.

P2P production works on different principles, different motivations. People do stuff because they feel like it, because it needs to be done, because it is cool, because people will like them, or whatever. But they don't do it because anybody forces them too. And they cooperate simply because it makes sense in order to accomplish things we'd like to do. They'll cooperate even if they have no great ideological belief in cooperation as opposed to the alternatives. But cooperation naturally happens.

And now to the exiting stuff. We could say that there's an evolutionary trend towards widespread cooperation, in the P2P fashion. That our next step is a cooperative planetary organism. Evolutionary psychologics John Stewart talks about things like that:
Evolution's Arrow also argues that evolution itself has evolved. Evolution has progressively improved the ability of evolutionary mechanisms to discover the best adaptations. And it has discovered new and better mechanisms. The book looks at the evolution of pre-genetic, genetic, cultural, and supra-individual evolutionary mechanisms. And it shows that the genetic mechanism is not entirely blind and random.

Evolution's Arrow goes on to use an understanding of the direction of evolution and of the mechanisms that drive it to identify the next great steps in the evolution of life on earth - the steps that humanity must take if we are to continue to be successful in evolutionary terms. It shows how we must change our societies to increase their scale and evolvability, and how we must change ourselves psychologically to become self-evolving organisms - organisms that are able to adapt in whatever ways are necessary for future evolutionary success, unfettered by their biological or social past. Two critical steps will be the emergence of a highly evolvable, unified and cooperative planetary organisation that is able to adapt as a coherent whole, and the emergence of evolutionary warriors - individuals who are conscious of the direction of evolution, and who use their evolutionary consciousness to promote and enhance the evolutionary success of humanity.
Yeah, I believe that. I want that. I hope that's what's happening. But there's the question of how to get from here to there. Maybe it will happen by itself, but one can't help wondering what ought to be done to facilitate it.

An immediate obstacle in moving more thoroughly to P2P methods in our society is that their presence to a large degree is paid for out of the side-effects of the old system.
The central problem is that most of the existing peer to peer emergence is based on the surplus created by the present economic system, and that many forms of peer to peer live from the wealth created by this system, being unable to sustain themselves independently. I am personally not convinced yet that peer to peer can sustain itself economically, and so are many of its proponents. Which is the reason why many peer to peer oriented theorists point to the need of a "generalised citizen wage", which would replace all existing transfers (unemployment, etc..) and allow for a generalisation of peer to peer activities, based on the surplus generated by the money economy.
And he goes on to outline various visions for a P2P type of society. Like a GPL Society, based on the principles of the General Public License. I.e. production not based on exchange, but based on making things that are needed, and making them as easily accessible as possible.

It isn't clear how to get there. Maybe the old style centralized hierarchical capitalism will collapse under its own weight. But maybe it won't. There are many possible scenarios where it instead will be able to swallow up the alternatives and be able to control even more aspects of your life.

Anyway, most of this is directly from Bauwens' paper, so read the real thing. Some parts are in French, but you can probably do without them.
[ | 2004-10-14 21:54 | 7 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 NetWar and stupidity
William Gibson is blogging again. Why?
Because the United States currently has, as Jack Womack so succintly puts it, a president who makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.

And because, as the Spanish philospher Unamuno said, "At times, to be silent is to lie."
And this is what he says today:
"Just about seven years ago I happened to find myself in San Francisco with a very pleasant man who was then an Office Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. We got along well, and he introduced me to several new ideas (mainly the "netwar" paradigm of warfare, which is genuinely a new paradigm in the Kuhnian sense, and which I'll return to in a later post). I came away feeling highly optimistic about, of all things, the US military. He'd assured me that "NO MORE VIETNAMS" might as well be carved above the West Point gates as Prime Directive, because "asymmetric conflict with amorphous networks of terrorists, who repurpose civilian technologies to terrible ends" was going to be where it was at from now on in -- and that Vietnam was always going to be what you got if you stuck with the old paradigm.

In the days after 9-11 I often took comfort in thinking of this man and the ideas he represented. When asked what I thought the United States would or could do in response to the attacks, I surprised friends by saying that I believed the US military's intelligentsia already understood the true nature of the conflict better than the enemy did.

And I still imagine that I was right in that. But the creative intelligence of my friend from the DoD, and so many others like him, prevailed not at all -- in the face of ideology, cupidity, stupidity, and a certain tragically crass cunning with regard to the mass pyschology of the American people.

One actually has to be something of a specialist, today, to even begin to grasp quite how fantastically, how baroquely and at once brutally fucked the situation of the United States has since been made to be."
Yes, of course there must be smart people, also in the U.S. military, who'd actually have an idea of what to do. A better idea than starting some old-fashioned ground war, against the wrong people, sending several trillion dollars up in smoke, and pretending that everything is going great.
[ | 2004-10-14 23:51 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

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