Design in a P2P world: interview by Julien McHardy


I met Julien McHardy, who is doing a master thesis at the Glasgow School of Art on the role of design in the creation of creative communities, during my lecture at the Urban Learning Space where I was invited by Yvonne Kincaid in April 2008. His recent interest as a designer and researcher are the implications of design approaches that no longer focus on objects or users but on the very processes of design and use.

He writes that:

The recognition that value is not something designer inject into objects but a relational property of the network of designer, objects and users has wide implications on the role of all parties hereto. The evolving questions of openness and control, power and responsibility resonate in your work.

Allow me to sketch out some of the arguments you make in P2P and Human Evolution (Bauwens 2008), as I understand them: You propose that we live in a phase of cognitive capitalism where immaterial processes and the creativity that drives them become the main key for innovation. The hierarchical power structures of capitalism however can neither cope with, nor produce the increasing diversity and abundance of information that such a knowledge driven economy both creates and depends upon. The distribute networks of the internet and the web enabled the emergence of peer-to-peer modes of production, governance and ownership which are based on the “free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task”. Peer-to-peer phenomena are not restricted to the virtual world but present a deep economic and social shift comparable with the industrial revolution. Capital increasingly depends on the productivity of peer-to-peer networks for the production of knowledge while these in return depend on capital for distribution. You point out that the new mode of peer-to-peer production partly transcends the current profit based system and conclude that “a new kind of society, based on the centrality of the Commons, and within a reformed market and state, is in the realm of human possibility.” Design struggles to define its position in a world of open collaboration and to start exploring the relations between design and peer-to-peer processes is the motivation for this interview.

The Interview:

1. Julien McHardy: You coined the term ‘servant-designer’ when I approached you for this interview. I guess you referred to Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership – the idea that the highest priority of leadership is to serve the needs of those being led. David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, suggest that design can work as a kind of glue that can bring together people from different backgrounds – a meta-discipline that provides the processes for others to collaborate (Design as glue). This preposition implies that there are two sides to creation – process and content – and concludes that designers can provide the frameworks for others to be creative. It also suggest that process leadership is important to allow for open participation on the content side of the equation. Is this preposition consistent with you idea of the servant-designer? Is there a need for process leadership within peer-to-peer projects? Do we need leadership to make sure that collaborations are inclusive or are the concepts of leadership and inclusiveness opposed to each other?

Michel Bauwens I think the first important point to remember is that I’m talking specifically about the conditions applying in what I call peer production, which consists of voluntary contributions, non-exclusionary production processes, and commons-oriented output that is universally available. Think Linux and Wikipedia as example.

Now in such an environment, where only a core of contributors gets paid but where this is complemented with a much larger community of freely engaged contributors, you have quite a different relationship between leader and led than in a classic hierarchical corporation. The leader represents a vision and a more consistent engagement, but he is entirely reliant on the voluntary contributions, there is a very strong inter-dependency. In addition, such projects are often global coordination’s of a large number of self-selected small teams, often operating with ad-hoc and rotating leadership positions. It’s a ‘leader-full’ rather than leaderless environment.

In such a context, the leader cannot become authoritarian or privatize the common efforts, let’s the community leaves or a fork is constituted. This naturally selects for leaders who are able to motivate the community and therefore the need to develop servant-leadership qualities is paramount.

Let’s now move to the issue of design. Peer production operates in distributed environments, where permission-less action, relation and production is the rule. Selection for excellence and control of quality is moved from the a priori position of who can participate, to the common control of what has been produced. Distributed networks are characterized by the fact that the hubs are voluntary, not obligatory, but nevertheless, hubs do arise which suggests that the power law is operative in any case. A good example is the Wikipedia, where the editors have taken power from the authors, and the Wikimedia Foundation refuses participation by the community. There are also many cases of hybrid peer production, where contribution is voluntary and not motivated by monetary concerns, BUT, the platform is commercially owned and the personal data and aggregated attention of the community is sold to advertisers as a profit model. In both cases, design is an important issue, because it is the unwritten constitution and invisible architecture which facilitates certain behaviours while it hinders the emergence of others. In the first case, the infrastructure of cooperation of a peer production community, we need value-conscious design that insure diversity, transparency, etc… It is in this context that we need servant-designers that can translate the values of the community into the invisible architecture. In the second case, design becomes an object of political struggle between the desire for enclosure of the private owners, and the desire and need for openness by the community of sharers.

In both cases, design is eminently political, vested with important power, but subject to the same dynamics as leadership, i.e. situated in a context of inter-dependency, and therefore, it is likely that peer communities select for service-oriented designers.

2. Julien McHardy Communities play a central role in peer theory and designer increasingly conceptualise people as communities rather then individual users. Both, the general term community and its subsets such as user-, professional- or local community however are often not clearly defined.

You made the point that peer communities not only create common use-value but also a set of shared values. You also argued that peer communities allow people with very different political agendas to engage in the same project. Is there a contradiction between the idea that peer communities are somehow apolitical and the idea that they are based on shared values?

It is obvious that peer-to-peer is an interaction between many but what is the quality of this interaction ?

Michel Bauwens To define communities I think you need to define what people are exactly doing together and how strong their links are. Clay Shirky uses a ladder of participation that distinguishes sharing, conversation, collaboration and collective action, each step requiring stronger links, and there are a few more sophisticated ladders being proposed. I usually distinguish, for economic and governance purposes, the sharing economy, where people express their creative output but do not have a common value to create (think YouTube), from the peer production economy, where people actually create common artefacts (think Linux or Wikipedia), the latter are characterized by strong links, the existence of independent instead of proprietary platforms, and the support of a self-organized for-benefit institution, usually in Foundation format, that runs the infrastructure of cooperation (think the Linux, Apache, Gnome, Wikimedia and Mozilla Foundations.)
I therefore think that peer to peer is a object-oriented sociality, organized around a vision of the common value or artefact that needs to be produced. It is the logic of that common value which creates a particular organizational logic, and the meritocratic criteria’s of excellence which are going to determine internal discipline, norms and values. Peer to peer is not credentialist or professionalist, not role-oriented, but task-oriented, and the key criteria is whether or not you can carry out that task, and how it fits the common project, both of which are determined a posteriori, after the probabilistic production, not a priori. That is the big change from the older model.

The common value to be produced is the glue holding the community together, along with the skills and mobilization potential of the core leadership of central contributors. The goal is therefore constructive, but the result is eminently political, since we have a new economic, governance, and property logic at work that is somehow both immanent to the current system, but also has radical ‘transcendent’ implications, as it is post-coercion, post-command and control, post-monetary, you name it.

But you have to notice the difference with explicitly political and ‘revolutionary’ projects. Here communities take effective control of the artefacts they are producing. It is politically integrative because its unites the love of freedom and meritocracy of liberalism, but also the love of equality and participatory governance, and commons oriented output of the left traditions, in a context where freedom and equality do not compete, but reinforce each other.

Now to answer to the quality of the interaction, this is a matter of the common object, the depth of sociality that is needed to achieve this, and the criteria’s of excellence that are necessary for the project to be successful. They will be much more stringent for say a software project, whose faulty execution can kill people; for a scientific project, from which depend academic careers, than for a knowledge project as the Wikipedia, where the norms will be softer. Finally, each project is also conditioned by the threats to its existence, and how it defends itself (spamming, trolling, etc…). The governance is always a mixture of control (by the core contributors), equipotential participation (entry is usually free), and the cost of exit and forking, which acts to balance the power of the core leadership.

3.Julien McHardy A growing group within the design community works on systems, services and strategies. This move of designers into more abstract spheres led to a confusion about the conceptual status of objects. Objects are viewed as touchpoints – as mere means to an end.

Your argument that peer to peer is organized around the vision of a common value or artefact is interesting in this context. You seem to propose that peer communities emerge around common objects, like people once gathered around a camp fire. What is the role of objects in peer communities? Are they merely a means in the creation of a community or the very reason that communities emerge?

Michel Bauwens They are the very reason peer production communities (as opposed to sharing communities) are created in the first place.

The social object is very important. First of all, it is what attracts participants in the first place, because of their shared needs or ideals that is concretized through this object. The object is ‘transcendent’, it goes beyond the self-based needs of the participants, and is the glue that holds them together. Peer production communities are designed in such a way though, that the individual and collective needs are seen to be converging, not opposed, but the role of the transcendent remains important as a self-disciplinary factor for the group: ‘we are all in here to produce good code’, and if not, this is not your place, and you will be free to cooperate, but will be judged and weighted by the community on your capacity to co-create that object.

From the object, flow two important things: it will determine the social norms and rules that will discipline the cooperation, and therefore the internal balance between control and decentralisation within the particular project.

Paradoxically, this works in strange ways: critical software projects have more stringent disciplinary structures (the meritocratic power of maintainers/committers and ‘benevolent dictators’), which they combine with formal democratic procedures (Debian, Apache) while less than critical ‘soft knowledge’ projects like the Wikipedia have much less democracy and a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ (through deletionism, less than expert editors have taken power over the subject experts, and the Wikimedia Foundation is opposed to input by the community).

The object has to be sufficiently attractive to create the willingness to accept the social discipline, and have rewards attached that set off the mimetic process of free cooperation (the reputation and wisdom game responsible to distribute the social benefits attached to the cooperation). Finally, the object creates potential enemies and dangers to defend the community against, and so creates the pressures for institutionalizing the cooperation. It thereby also creates the leadership defined as those that are seen to have contributed most to the conception and realisation of the object, but their power is tempered by the exit-based empowerment of forking and the fact they are totally dependent on voluntary contributions.

4. Julien McHardy Could you expand on what you mean by social object.

Michel Bauwens The object is social because it only exists through the cooperation of the peers. Unlike a product, it is never finished and without collective improvement, is likely to become unusable or be replaced by more lively objects from competing communities. The object is social because it is the very cause for the existence of the community in the first place, and if it ceases to be social, it would slowly die out or disappear, so it is intimately intertwined with the survival of the community itself.

5. Julien McHardy You argue elsewhere that much of the design process today is digital and could hence be distributed in peer to peer communities. Above, you make the point that peer to peer production depends on open objects that are never finished – unlike physical products. Do you see a contradiction here? Under which conditions could a physical object become the catalyst for the creation of a community?

Michel Bauwens Designing physical products creates a lot of extra difficulties that creating content or software does not have, and crucially, there need to be a lot more feedback loops between physical experience and the designs. I think there is also a great difference between producing directly executable files, and having documentation that can actually be used by people on the trenches. These extra difficulties mean that open hardware is a lot harder to do than open software. Nevertheless, these difficulties do not make it impossible. I would refer to Stephen Vermeulen’s continuous updating of product hacks, to my own directory of Open Design Communities (, which show many existing communities making substantial progress. I think the issue you refer to, open objects vs. fixed products, is not too different from the version control in software, and the kind of solution that the Linux community has devised (a ‘fixed’ and experimental version co-existing). Open design has enormous advantages if you compare to closed designs. Companies strive for relative quality, being better than the competition, and cease innovation when they have a relative monopoly; communities strive for absolute quality. Corporate innovation is like a ladder, community innovation is incessant. IP protection impedes cooperation, open design allows it. And finally, when a corporation goes broke, the innovation is lost, which is never the case with an open design. This is why I belief that wherever an open design community emerges, though it may make time, it will eventually produce a better design than corporate research labs. The key issue however will be in the kind of model that can combine open design communities, with entities producing the products. But I think we can see a lot of evidence of how this is working out, for example in Eric von Hippel’s research on lead user innovation and built only capitalism. I’m not sure how to respond to your query about conditions. I think that informed users/consumers now have a natural tendency to want to improve the products and services that they use, and that corporations will respond to it through co-design and co-creation solutions. However, there will also be more radical communities that want to reverse the direction of control, and start their own designs, creating business ecologies around it. As in free software, reality will be a hybrid of open design communities, for-benefit institutions managing the infrastructures of cooperation, and companies living in symbiosis with such design commons.

6. Julien McHardy Finally – I would like to ask you about the scope of peer to peer production. You point out that peer to peer processes are based on voluntary contributions of individuals. Eric von Hippel’s work on lead user innovation draws heavily on case studies from sports such as mountain biking, kite surfing or rock climbing. These ‘extreme’ activities create a strong bond among practitioners but is it realistic to expect the same enthusiastic engagement for more ‘banal’ projects? Does the DIY spirit that fuels peer to peer processes limit these processes to a narrow range of ‘fun’ projects that allow for the convergence of individual and collective needs?

Michel Bauwens I think the scope of peer production is very large, because it is hard to argue that passion is the exclusive property of an elite. Rather I would argue what differs amongst humans is what the passion is about. If you don’t like a particular series, then fan fiction is banal, but not for those engaged with it. In other words, the ladder of participation, which suggests one of the people drive the project, 10% collaborate occasionally, and the others profit without contributing, is not an analysis of humanity, but rather, I would argue, everybody is a potential one-percenter in the sphere of his/her own passion. So the issue is how we enable/empower every member of humanity through universal literacy, access to computers and networks and a literacy of cooperation.

I think the real issue is there, and that is an eminent matter for designers. How do we design for inclusionary participation, how do we insure diversity?

However, there is another issue. Full use of the peer to peer potential of distributed networks is also a function of the mode of consciousness. Research by adult developmentalists like Susan Cook-Greuter suggests that only 2% of the world population is fully in ‘tune’ with the kind of free cooperation that is being technologically enabled, and for another 25% (say the ‘cultural creatives’ as described by Paul Ray), it represents an ideal (see slide 17 at for these figures). For me this means the following strategy is optimal for spreading peer to peer practices: give total freedom of usage to the minority that can, so as to give an image of possibility for all those who aim for it, and letting those inclined to take up this kind of servant leadership take on that joy and burden. By doing this, the kind of protocols embedded in the cooperation then can act as a kind of ‘constitution’ for the overall population. I mean this by analogy of a political constitution. This mean that you can ‘subjectively’ be a male chauvinistic pig for example, but the culture, protocols and norms of the online community will nevertheless a style of behaviour that is different and more conducive to cooperation. Mastering these processes is the domain of value-sensitive design.

2 Comments Design in a P2P world: interview by Julien McHardy

  1. Pingback: Boycott Novell » Links 04/08/2008: LinuxWorld Kicks Off, Many GNU/Linux Ports Announced

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