How essential is anonymity to peer to peer relationality?

Marina Garcés asked me to write this article for a Spanish magazine on Urbanism: Metropolis.

Though I’m not an expert, I submitted the following text:

How essential is anonymity to peer to peer relationality?

I believe answering that question becomes easier if we look at the historical development of relationality and that such a review may lead us to challenge any simplistic identification of peer to peer relationality with anonymity.

For starters, let us broadly define peer to peer relationality, as that type of relationality where individuals can freely aggregate themselves around common goals, enabled by the affordances of the new type of internetworked technologies .

One of the key insights of psychologist Clare Graves’ interpretation of human cultural evolution , is the idea of the changing balance, over time, between the two poles of the individual and the collective. In the popularization of his research by the Spiral Dynamics systems , they see the tribal era as characterized by collective harmony, but also as a culture of stagnation. Out of this harmony, strong individuals are born, heroes and conquerors, which will their people and others into the creation of larger entities. These leaders are considered divinities themselves and thus in certain senses are ‘beyond the law’, which they have themselves constituted through their conquest. It is against this ‘divine individualism’ that a religious reaction is born, very evident in the monotheistic religions, which stresses the existence of a transcendent divine order (rather than the immanent order of paganism), to which even the sovereign must obey. Thus a more communal/collective order is created. But again, this situation is overturned when a new individual ethos arises, which will be reflected in the growth of capitalism. It is based on individuals, and collective individuals such as corporations and nations, which think strategically in terms of their own interest. In the words of anthropologist Louis Dumont, we moved from a situation of (w)holism, in which the empirical individuals saw themselves foremost as part of a whole, towards individualism as an ideology , positing atomistic individuals, in need of socialization through social contracts and institutions. They transferred their powers to collective individuals, such as the king, the people, the nation, which could act in their name, and created a sacrificial unity through the institutions of modernity.

This articulation, based on a autonomous self in a society which is created through a presumed social contract, has been changing in ‘postmodernity’. Simondon , a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to ‘extract the individual dimension’ of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that ‘everything is related’, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.
This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.
Another important aspect of the condition of postmodernity, and its ‘psychological’ interpretations, is that of the fragmentation of the individual. Rather than seen as a integrated self, the postmodern individual is seen as fragmented, consisting of many different parallel processes, each with a relative autonomy, and not necessary integrated. In classic postmodernism, this is seen as a kind of ‘realization’ or endgame, an uncovering of the truth of the human condition, as well as the result of the social conditions prevalent under ‘late capitalism’. It also creates a certain of ‘despair’ around the human condition, since fragmentation is not always a desirable quality.

However, I believe it behooves us to posit a second phase of postmodernity, which is no longer deconstructive of self and society, but reconstructive, and to see the emergence of peer to peer relationality as an expression of that reconstructive effort. Peer to peer has indeed to be seen as an object oriented sociality, where person-fragments cooperate around the creation of common value. Indeed what connects individuals that participate in open and shared knowledge, software or design projects is the ability to connect their own ends, with some transcendental collective goal (building a universal operating system, constructing a universal free encyclopedia, constructing an open source car, etc …). In peer projects, individuals aggregate a particular passionate pursuit, into a collective project.

This is important, because, whereas in individualist market visions, the invisible hand indirectly creates public benefit (at least in theory and ideology), in peer to peer, the intentionality of the collective project is integrated in the effort itself. Contributors to Wikipedia or Linux do not see the end result as an indirect result of individual transactions, but as the result of a particular social design, which harmonizes individual effort and the collective goal, with the integration of both seen as non-contradictory.

This gives peer to peer relationality a strong collective aspect, which was absent in the previous individualist epoch. Nothing precludes the public good to become a similar peer to peer object, so that it is more than the simple aggregation of existing partial peer to peer projects, but the object of particular attention by itself.

Positively interpreted, peer to peer becomes a global ‘cosmic’ mash-up, whereby the fragmented individuals of postmodernity, recreate unity and identity through their engagement with collective efforts, which can be geared to civic public goods. In this interpretation, individuality is preserved, relationality is added, and a collective dimension emerges in a higher unity, where the individual and collective aspect, agency and communion, are no longer opposed to each other.

Let’s now use the same historical schematics to anonymity. It would seem that by and large, premodern relations where of a personal nature, even as they were part of a ‘wholistic’ system. Feudal and other obligations are always personal in nature, as is local trading and bartering when participants know each other. It’s the capitalist marketplace which introduces ‘neutral’ human relationships and transactions as the basis of a new sociality, even as it paradoxically develops individualism.

So anonymity is really nothing new for the city, it’s part and parcel of modernity and its reliance of ‘neutral’, contractual, exchanges and transactions. The anomie of the modern individual, ‘freed’ from his local and traditional attachments, is a well known and frequently discussed sociological phenomenon. Though cities are undoubtedly spaces of sociality, there are also spaces of lack of sociality, of, typically, “not knowing one’s neighbors”. Much of our lives in the city are indeed already anonymous.

For a new social system to structurally replace its predecessors, it needs to ‘transcend and include’, on a higher level of integration, the key features of the previous modalities it is replacing or complementing (even if it does not do this altogether well). So in our specific discussion, we would expect that the personal relations typical of premodernity, and the neutrality/anonymity of the modern market society, are ‘transcended and include’ into P2P relationality. This means that, in our understanding, P2P allows both anonymity and personalization to occur simultaneously. Indeed, we can see on one level, how peer to peer enables stigmergic cooperation between individuals who do not know each other, as in the Wikipedia cooperation for example; and allows ‘trust with strangers’ to occur more readily, as for example in the scheme, where strangers can share couches with each other, because they trust the larger system and reputational checks and balances. On the other, any deep cooperation necessitates more close personal involvement and engagement in peer to peer projects, and many social networks, say Facebook or LinkedIn, are equally predicated on a refusal of anonymity. P2P relationality therefore, liberaties from both the constraints of forced personalization and anonymity, giving flexible freedom to peers in networks.

But because it empowers and enables relationality to occur, and explodes the number of possible relations , i.e. the possibility of ‘fragments finding each other’, it will without any doubt change the face of city life; enabling and empowering city dwellers. Without a doubt, this will create problems and challenges on its own, and eventually reveal the dark sides of hyper-relationality, especially when it may be imposed as a new social norm, a base expectation of standard behavior, and the related challenges of forced transparency and imposed surveillance. And what may occur naturally to newer generations, may be considered as quite a negative and disturbing behavior by earlier generations.

Most interestingly, the P2P relationality will not be confined to just other humans, but will extend to the “Machine Other”, i.e. the internet of things, with sensor-enabled objects; and most likely in the post-warming age, a revival of relationality with other living beings and the natural environment. Life in the city, anonymous or not, is bound to become very interesting in the coming decades, as the full potential of this relationality is being plaid out.


– Beck, Don and Cowan, W. 1996 Spiral Dynamics : Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. Wiley

– Dumont, L. 1981 Homo Hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications. University of Chicago Press

– Fiske, A. P., & Haslam, N. 2005. The four basic social bonds: Structures for coordinating interaction. In Mark Baldwin, Ed., Interpersonal Cognition, 267–298. New York: Guilford.

– Graves, Clare W. 2005. The Never Ending Quest: Dr. Clare W. Graves Explores Human Nature. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. 578 pp., Index.

– Simondon, G. et 2007 L’individuation psychique et collective. Aubier,

1 Comment How essential is anonymity to peer to peer relationality?

  1. Avatarjames william gibson

    Hi Michel,

    Excellent essay. I would point out, however, that the recent success of Wiki Leaks in decoding the Apache helicopter gunship 30mm cannon attack on Iraqi journalists shows that anonymous contributions have an important role. If more state and corporate atrocities find their way to the net, then major institutions could suffer a crisis of legitimacy, making social change more likely.

    On another front, I was pleased to see your emphasis on relationships with animals and nature as part of an evolving P2P ethos.

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