Four levels of P2P

A reprint of the editorial in P2P News issue 95:

A typical reaction to the manuscript and the ideas around P2P is to stress how it can be recuperated , not only by the current economic system, but even by darker social forces such as Al Qaeda. If such is the case, how can I frame P2P as a positive social development?

To answer this, I think it is useful to distinguish different levels:

– One level is the phenomenological level, i.e. the different ways in which the P2P forms emerges in different social fields. Here we get the peer to peer relational dynamic in distributed systems, and how it expresses itself in the internet structure, the writeable Web 2.0, peer circles or what have you. This I propose to call `diffuse P2P’. Such P2P emergence is easy to integrate within the existing system, and can be instrumentalised by authoritarian social forces, as in Al Qaeda using the internet. It is `immanent’ to the system.

– The second level is when integration occurs. The different P2P forms in this case do not exist independently, but start reinforcing one another. This `integrated P2P’ involving such social processes as peer production, peer governance, and universal common property regimes, become transcendent to the system, because they cannot be contained within the current production schemes (market pricing and corporate hierarchy), governance schemes (corporate hierarchy or state bureaucracy or even representational democracy), or property regimes. They create an emerging new social reality, which is today dominated by the existing social economy, but that is a contingent situation which could change in the future. I’m not saying “it will happen”, but definitely “it can happen” and whether it happens also depends on our human intentionality.

– Now, why is all this happening. Because, before social practices and technological artifacts are invented or emerge, it must be conceived in the human mind, and it must become acceptable as a social practice. Thus P2P emerges out of changes in the `ground state’ of humanity, i.e. deep changes in the ontology/epistemology/axiology, or in easier words: new ways of feeling and being, of knowing, and new constellations of values. That is the third level which occurs as a spontaneous social process, not directed, not necessarily consciously desired but part of the evolution of the `social imaginary’. It is this level which has been so beautifully captured by John Heron’s recapitulation of the evolution of participation, which I have cited on occasion. Broadly conceived, such a deep level of human change is also outside the scope of recuperation.

– The fourth level occurs when we become conscious of these changes, and make it an object of our human intentionality: in other words, we not only see it happening (level 1 to 3), but we want it to happen and seek out others with similar values in the hope of interconnecting our efforts. This is the object of my own work, and I hope it can become the basis of a broad social and political movement as more and more people, from their own particular perspective, come to their own conclusions. At this point, P2P becomes a normative ethos for a new kind of life on earth, and definitely outside the scope of any recuperation, though there is no guarantee of its success.

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