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Four Scenarios for the Inevitable P2P Future

Michel Bauwens
27th October 2012

Original article from P2P-Foundation here.

P2P and networked technologies are here to stay, are expanding, and will become the dominant technological format. Yet, that doesn’t mean at all that the future is a foregone conclusion. Around these technologies we will see political and social struggles that will involve ownership and governance (control), and also their mobilization by social forces having their own worldviews, interests and agenda.

To distinguish various futures, I have produced a impromptu four quadrant structure according to two axes:

1) one distinguishes the centralized vs. distributed control of p2p infrastructures (and on the right side, this tension is best expressed by global vs. local orientation)

2) the other distinguishes for-profit (let’s say ‘capitalist’) vs. for-benefit orientations (let’s say ‘commons’)

This gives us four quadrants:

Upper-Left: Netarchical Capitalism, is characterized by the centralized control of p2p infrastructures, with a for-profit orientation (think Facebook)

Bottom-Left: Distributed Capitalism, distributed control, but with a for-profit orientation, think the design of Bitcoin

Bottom-Right: a local for-benefit orientation, this characterizes the Resilient Communities approaches

Upper-Right: the Global Commons orientation, which does not forego the construction of a more just society at the global level

I haven’t had the time to write this out formally, but this unedited transcript, compiled by Jean Lievens, has my remarks on the subject, as recently given in Helsinki (video).


“So this is basically saying the following: given the fact that the peer-to-peer structures are given, they can be controlled separately or you can get distributed control. They can have a for-profit orientation or a for-benefit orientation, in short, capitalism or the commons as a way to say the same thing.

So we have four scenarios. First is centralised control with a for-profit orientation. This is what I call netarchical capitalism –the hierarchy of the network: net-archy right? A typical example would be Facebook. I think we can underline that in Facebook you do have a lot of horizontal dynamics, people share information, meet together, create stuff together, make revolutions, all kinds of stuff… using a capitalist platform, right? So you can do many things with Facebook. But you don’t control the design, the servers are centralized by a company and the monetization of your activity is almost exclusively in the hands of the platform. This is a problem. This is actually an unsustainable alternative. The way I explain it is the following. We have now the capability to exponentially increase the creation of use value, but it is only being monetized growing linear. So the gap between our capacity to produce value and the capacity to monetize it is growing apart further and further. Furthermore, the little bit that is monetized is being monopolized. So this is the wet dream of capital, right? Free labour. All the time, and you make all the profit. But it is unsustainable. Because who is going to buy your products if you don’t pay anybody? So this is what we call a value crisis, we are creating a value crisis in our society and precarity, because more and more activities are pushed to this area, where there is no feedback-loop; the value system is blocked as it were. These are systems where 100% of the value is created by the users. What is an empty platform? Nothing. So the value is created by the users, but is not realized by the users. So we have democratized the means of production but not the means of our livelihoods. This is the basic issue with this model.

The next model is distributed control with a for-profit orientation. Bitcoin is a typical example of what I call distributed capitalism. Bitcoin is a monetary system that is designed as a commodity. It is scarce, you have to compete for it, you have to buy it on the market place. I like Bitcoin, but it is a commodity currency. And the reason it was done is because the people who made it and who like it are usually libertarians, they are anarcho-capitalists, their ideal society is a society where everybody is free to trade and exchange without centralized control. They don’t like the banks, they don’t like the state. So Bitcoin is designed with a market point of view. So this is why it’s important, you’re intent is very important. If you design something, your values are very important. Technology is not neutral. Technology is designed. And the design of your technology says something about the world you want to enable. If you want to protect your privacy on Facebook, it is very difficult. You can do it but it is very difficult, why? Because they make it difficult. They do it in such a way that you give up. And so therefore they can sell your data, right? Facebook, with CIA-funds –they have venture capital from the CIA- and they have 800 pages on each of us, they are making a living through selling our data, this is their business model. So Bitcoin is different. But it is very important to know if you have a distributed infrastructure to know what it is for. Let’s say I want to do social lending, lend through Prosper’s Zopa, not from a bank, but from each other. I can do that with a point of view, which is: I can go to Prosper because I get more money on Prosper than I can get from a bank. So you have a unifier structure but a mindset that is pretty much a normal mindset of a utility maximizer, right? So these two are emerging, so they are few scenarios but they are also become realities, right? They are emerging right now. What about the two next ones?

Bitcoin banknote. Image: CASASCIUS

This one is also emerging big time, localised with resilience. Many of the people who think we are entering an age of resource and engine scarcity are thinking oh my god we need to protect ourselves against the decomposition of the global system. How do you do that? By relocalizing our productive capacities. And they do that with a community orientation. I don’t know if you know John Robb from Global Guerrillas, this is typical of this, and he would say very flatly: I don’t believe in politics. So it is all about lifeboat strategies. Relocalization as a survival strategy, transition tasks. And definitively for-benefit oriented, community oriented, but what is lacking for me –and this is why we have a fourth- is an orientation towards the global commons, in other words, an orientation towards deep economic and social change.

Photo: Didoundp

So here we have a for-benefit attitude with a global orientation. So this is where we start thinking about the commons and peer production as a social alternative that aims to solve the deep crisis that we are facing as a planet, where we actually want to overturn this pseudo abundance / artificial scarcity thing, right? And we want to use the commons and peer production as our leverage. So basically, if I was in the sixteenth century, and I would be visionary, I would tell you: capitalism is coming. Today I would say: peer-to-peer is coming, but I am not sure exactly how it is going to turn out. Because that depends on us, right? It depends on social structure, social struggle, political mobilization all kinds of things that nobody controls. So our intent for the future is very important.

And if you look at social change in the past, what I call phase transition, take the end of the Roman Empire and the end of the feudal system. So what you have is the main system is in crisis. Rome no longer expands. Can not get more slaves, slaves are becoming very expensive, cannot get more gold, so the old system no longer works, is decomposing slowly over two, three centuries, right? So you have an exodus out of the old system. The emperor start signing decrees to free the slaves, the slaves start fleeing, the Germanic tribes who are in front of the cities they want to conquer tell the slaves if you join us you’re free. So all these pressures create an exodus from slave hood to serfdom. At the same time as the clever managerial class which shifts to a local strategy, to localised feudal domains, that eventually would become feudalism. And they did this because when the Germanic tribes came in, and the state collapsed, what did they do? They turned to the Christian community. Because the Christian community had created an alternative system within the old system, right?

The Roman Empire. Image: Heraldry

So you have crisis, decomposition, exodus, and a reorientation of both the productive classes and the managerial classes into a new system of value creation and social structures. Feudalism is pretty much the same. You have the enclosures of the sixteenth century, the farmers are expelled from their land, they have no way to survive, they go to the cities as “free” labor That’s where they find people who had converted to merchant activities and factory activities who are hiring them, creating the basis for a new system. Is it any different from what is happening today? 35% of young people between 18 and 35 are jobless on average in Europe, 50% in some countries in Europe. This is an exodus. There is a massive exodus out of the wage/labor condition. Where are these people going? They are creating peer-to-peer activities to ensure their survival. They are creating new types of companies, and I want to give one more example. It is not a big company, but I think it is a kind of typical.

Photo: Superbass

Monk Bogdan baking bread
 at Konevsky Monastery.
Photo: Dmitry Ostanin
I went to Rio two or three months ago, and Rio is really an interesting city. About ten years ago the minister of culture under Lula, Gilberto Gil, a famous singer, had created 6 or 7.000 points of culture, basically xxx (?) but geared towards production, so teaching rural youth and favella youth to create film, music, photography, and eventually create enterprises out f this. So this created a very strong basis of culture in Brazil. This is just one of the companies I met and this is how they work, as an example of how people are moving to this new way of thinking, because it is first of all a change in the value system. This is an important thing, right? The Christians did not think the same as the Romans. The Romans hated work, that was for the slaves. The Christian monks loved to work because this was prefiguring the divine society, they were building the divine society on earth, right? This was their ideology. So curtocaffee (?), a small company but really interesting. First of all they use open logistics and open supply chains. So you can know where they buy the coffee, from whom and at what price. So no need for certification for fair trade, you just look and you can see that they are actually doing …? They are teaching the producers to do their own roasting, which triples their income. Secondly, they do research. They have four blends of coffee; their research is open. Any body can look at their research and improve and change their blends of coffee. When they want to expand their retail operations, they do crowd funding, they do actually as a community on Facebook ask do you want us to be there and the people are believe it or not crowd funding the rent for their expansion. So I am just trying to show you that these people are creating companies with a whole different mindset than we think a traditional entrepreneur would do, right?”

Rio de Janeiro from Sugarloaf mountain. Photo: Breogan67


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